Some foreign policy myths are so entrenched and tenacious that no amount of evidence seems able to dislodge them. An especially prominent one in recent years is that Donald Trump was Vladimir Putin’s puppet and adopted shameful policies that appeased Moscow. The latest example of that pervasive smear was an article by Peggy Noonan in the May 18, 2023, edition of the Wall Street Journal.
In that piece, Noonan manages to regurgitate nearly every stale myth about Trump being too cozy with Putin, even though she endorsed the findings of John Durham’s investigation that there was woefully insufficient evidence to justify either the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane Investigation or the subsequent Mueller Commission probe. "I have no reason to doubt the Durham report," she stated, "but it’s still curious that Trump treated Putin so gently."
Her principal (almost sole) piece of evidence about such gentle treatment was Trump’s indiscreet comments during the press conference following the May 2018 summit meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. When asked a classic "gotcha" question by Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Lemire about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump clumsily tried to finesse the query. Noonan observes that "Mr. Trump took that moment to denounce the FBI, implying the bureau was incompetent or corrupt. He then said he had been told by the director of national intelligence Dan Coats, that Russia had interfered. But Mr. Putin denied it: "He just said it’s not Russia." Trump added that "President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today." Noonan favorably quotes ultra-war hawk Sen. John McCain that Helsinki was "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
Trump obviously did not deserve high marks for his management of the press conference. A smarter, more experienced political leader would simply have fended off Lemire’s question by stating that he "obviously" was not going to discuss such a sensitive diplomatic and security issue in a public setting. Instead, Trump blundered ahead and gave his political adversaries valuable ammunition.
Nevertheless, two important points need to be made about the Helsinki summit being meaningful evidence that the U.S. president was a Russian agent or at least a Putin patsy. First, most summits are notorious for their sugar-coated, cordial statements. It is doubtful that Richard Nixon truly meant the compliments that he paid to communist tyrants Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong during his famous 1972 trip to China.
It is even less likely that Jimmy Carter was sincere in his New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah of Iran. Carter gushed that "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you." Later, he asserted: "The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations." The reality was that the Shah’s regime was one of the worst human rights violators in the world, and Carter was fully aware of that fact. Yet he was willing to ignore the obvious as part of the diplomatic blather that routinely accompanies summits. Trump’s efforts to soothe Putin at Helsinki was not a marked departure from the usual practice.
Second, and more important, Trump’s actions as president thoroughly debunk the notion that he was doing Putin’s bidding. To the contrary, Washington’s stance toward Russia became more hardline and confrontational throughout the Trump years. The administration terminated US adherence to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies agreement, even though continuing both measures were high priority items for Moscow. Trump even attempted to reach an agreement with Warsaw to establish a permanent US military base (a "Fort Trump) in Poland, and US operational military cooperation with several East European members of NATO noticeably increased.
It was Washington’s policy toward Ukraine, however, that became the epitome of the Trump administration’s confrontational, provocative behavior toward Russia. The United States began to train Ukrainian troops and send multiple arms shipments to Kyiv. Those moves constituted a notable escalation, since Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had steadfastly declined to make either move. Trump also authorized joint military exercises (war games) with US and Ukrainian forces and encouraged other NATO members to do the same. There is even evidence that US intelligence agencies collaborated with the Ukrainian counterparts to launch cyberattacks on Russian targets.
If such actions constituted appeasement and reflected the behavior of a Putin puppet, the Russian president had one incredibly disobedient puppet. The reality is that Trump was an anti-Russia hawk, and that his administration’s policies made relations between Washington and Moscow more hostile and confrontational. Indeed, Trump helped pave the way for America’s current risky proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. It is well past time that the "Trump was Putin’s puppet" myth be given an emphatic burial.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).