GOP leader resigns after Trump-Putin summit: "A matter of conscience" and "duty"

Trump returns from Putin summit to White House protests, conservative denunciation

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 17, 2018 12:13PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Sean Gallup)
(Getty/Sean Gallup)

When President Donald Trump returned to the United States after his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, he was greeted by thousands of protesters who denounced him as a traitor.

Many conservatives — a group that has by and large been reluctant to criticize Trump, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that he has been compromised by Russia — are starting to come around to the protesters' way of thinking, even if they are less zealous in how they present it.

We can start with this assessment of Trump's performance in front of Putin by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard:

It is, perhaps, understandable that a narcissist like Trump would feel some inner conflict about dealing with this subject. The trouble is that he does not and evidently cannot distinguish between (a) the now well documented verdict that Russian operatives interfered with the U.S. election and (b) the as yet unproven accusation that the Trump campaign actively participated with the Russians in their efforts. So offended is he by even the mention of the latter that he is willing to deny the former—even to the point of publicly taking the word of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence personnel on the question of Russian meddling. Trump has chosen, in public, not to grasp the difference between the two.

The editors added that attempts by Trump's defenders to equate the president's words toward Russia with a comparable softness toward Russia by President Barack Obama in 2012 are logically untenable:

The president’s defenders, incapable as ever of criticizing the man for any reason, are now comparing the president’s remarks to Barack Obama’s 2012 open-mic remarks to Russian foreign minister Dmitry Medvedev that “I’ll have a lot more flexibility after I win the election in 2012.” That was a deplorable moment in presidential history, to be sure, but it doesn’t compare to what Trump did in openly crediting a foreign dictator’s assessment over that of American intelligence officials—particularly when the dictator’s assessment is so obviously a lie. In any case, we are fully confident that if Barack Obama had expressed himself as Donald Trump did today, the latter’s defenders would have condemned Obama as the stooge of a foreign government. And they would have been right to do so.

READ MORE: Exclusive: "Under Trump, the government is worse than it has been before," Jimmy Carter says

Rich Lowry of National Review identified both Trump's unwillingness to admit to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and his false equivalence between American foreign policy and Russian foreign policy as examples of the president's poor behavior at Helsinki:

Trump is extremely defensive about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, which he believes is being used to undermine the legitimacy of his victory. Thus, he resorts to sophistry, blame-shifting, and obfuscation to avoid fully confronting the fact. That he did this standing next to the foreign perpetrator of the crime in Helsinki was depressing, if not surprising.

More startling were Trump’s statements blaming both the United States and Russia for poor relations. He tweeted it before his meeting with Putin and then confirmed the point when pressed about it in his news conference: “I hold both countries responsible.”

Ah, yes, both countries. One is given to invading its neighbors, rigging elections, killing dissidents (including on foreign soil), and violating international agreements and norms in the hopes of reestablishing something like the old Russian empire. The other has a strange, but apparently unbreakable, habit of electing new presidents who naïvely believe that they can reset relations with Russia based on their personality and goodwill.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate from 2016 who may be mulling a primary challenge against the president in 2020, made it clear in an interview with The Washington Post that he is dismayed by the Trump's recent actions.

"It’s depressing, really unlike anything we’ve seen in my lifetime. A president of the United States saying, ‘You know, I kind of believe a former KGB agent over our intelligence community,’" Kasich told the Post.

"This is a sad day."

Kasich also added that he was concerned that Trump's fellow Republicans would refuse to hold him accountable for his actions in Helsinki, just as they have refused to do so on a number of other occasions.

"I’m wondering what the congressional impact will be, what the reaction of his base will be. It has seemed that regardless of what he says, they stay with him. We will have to wait and see," Kasich told the Post.

Conservative talk radio host and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh took to Twitter to make a similar point — that Republicans now have to choose between their partisan desire to support Trump and their need to be patriotic Americans.

"Every Republican running for office needs to be asked: When it comes to Russian interference in our elections, do you stand with America's intelligence community or do you stand with Putin & Trump?" Walsh asked in his tweet.

Chris Gagin, the chairman of the Belmont County Republican Party in southeastern Ohio, resigned from his position after the Helsinki summit.

"I remain a proud conservative and Republican, but I resigned today as Belmont Co Ohio GOP Chairman. I did so as a matter of conscience, and my sense of duty," Gagin explained on Twitter.

He later added, "The President is entitled to GOP party leaders, at all levels, fully committed to his views and agenda. Following today’s press conference with Pres. Putin, as well as certain policy differences, most especially on trade, I could no longer fulfill that duty. Thus, I resigned."

It remains to be seen whether these words of protest, as well as those of many Republican lawmakers and pundits yesterday, will be enough to sway the party's base. If they do, it is quite possible that Republican legislators will start holding the president accountable for his willingness to betray America's interests to those of Russia. If not, then we may see more shameful incidents like the one in Helsinki on Monday.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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