Is Biden Handling Putin Better Than He’s Handling Trump?

Like most prickly would-be tyrants, neither Donald Trump nor Vladimir Putin likes to be mocked publicly—and a lot of that was directed at them this week. In Germany, Western leaders at the annual G-7 summit joked about Putin’s penchant for highly contrived macho photo ops as they debated whether to keep their suit jackets on in remarks caught on tape. “Shall we take our clothes off?” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked. “We all have to show them we’re tougher than Putin.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in with a barb aimed at Putin’s “bare-chested horseback ride,” a famous image of the Russian leader, released in 2009. Putin eventually responded that it would have been a “disgusting sight” had the Western leaders in fact taken off their shirts.

In Washington, Trump came in for withering ridicule after the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to Trump’s White House chief of staff, about his toddler-like rages and repeated smashing of the White House crockery. In one instance that she detailed, during her gripping appearance before the House Select Committee investigating Trump and the January 6th attack on the Capitol, Trump was so angry with then Attorney General Bill Barr for telling an interviewer that there was no substantial election fraud that he threw his lunch, leaving “ketchup dripping down the wall,” Hutchinson said.

“Was this the only instance that you were aware of where the President threw dishes?” the committee’s vice-chair, Liz Cheney, asked.

“It’s not,” Hutchinson replied. Endless jokes followed, as did the inevitable Trump statement that he “hardly know[s]” Hutchinson. Both Trump and Putin have made it easy to skewer their vain pretensions and squalid rages.

Joe Biden, in Europe for a pair of summits largely consumed by the problems Putin has unleashed with his invasion of Ukraine, did not join in the jokes. (At least not publicly.) But the past few months have made clear that, whatever his hopes at the start of his tenure, Biden has two main enemies. One is Trump and the coup-plotting former President’s supporters, given the very real prospect that these radical election deniers will soon return to power in Congress and even, in 2024, to the White House. The other is Putin, whose decision to invade Ukraine, in February, has led to the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Facing down the threats that the two men pose to democracy has become the defining challenge of Biden’s Presidency. It’s by no means clear, however, that he’s winning.

In the past year, Biden has been hit with a host of problems that might have shaped an entire four-year term for some other President, including a Republican-dominated activist Supreme Court that has now overturned Roe v. Wade and a worst-in-four-decades bout of inflation. On Thursday, Biden called for Congress to make a limited exception to the filibuster in order to codify Roe into federal law, a move that faces long odds of succeeding. More generally, it’s hard to see how Biden, lurching from mess to intertwined mess, can do much to fix anything in time to rescue his sinking political fortunes ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. A poll this week found that eighty-five per cent of Americans now believe the country is on the wrong track.

As the events of 2022 have shown, Trump and Putin are enduring, existential threats of a nature and scale that have not simultaneously confronted any American leader at any time in the modern era. The internal U.S. catastrophe of Trump and the Trump-controlled G.O.P. is mirrored and magnified by the international disaster of Putin and Putinism. Both are rogue powers, determined to disrupt and destroy existing orders, and both are hostile to the basic tenets of democracy. Putin now compares himself openly to Peter the Great, waging a war of imperial conquest on his neighbors. Trump, as Hutchinson’s testimony and earlier revelations from the January 6th committee have shown, came far closer than many understand to succeeding in his effort to remain in power after losing the 2020 election.

In some ways, Biden has been clearer, sharper, and stronger in taking on Putin since the war in Ukraine started than in figuring out how to deal with Trump. A NATO summit in Madrid this week was a reminder of this, a display of the remarkable transformation in the alliance which Putin’s war—and Biden’s pushback to it—have wrought. During Trump’s Presidency, NATO itself was at risk. Trump not only declared it “obsolete” but came close to withdrawing the U.S. from it entirely, at a contentious 2018 summit days before his infamous Helsinki meeting with Putin. He spent years attacking NATO allies while praising adversaries such as the Russian leader.

By any measure, the Madrid summit marked an astonishing reversal, as the alliance announced plans for major new American military deployments to Europe; an eightfold increase in its rapid-reaction force, from forty thousand to three hundred thousand troops; more weapons for Ukraine; and approval of Finland and Sweden’s membership. The two Nordic countries had remained neutral through the long years of the Cold War, until the war in Ukraine—and private diplomatic cajoling by Biden—jolted them into joining. NATO’s new “strategic concept,” its first since 2010, speaks of Russia as “the most significant and direct threat” to the alliance, abandoning even the pretense of coöperation that NATO leaders maintained for far longer than Putin’s actions justified.

“We’re stepping up,” Biden said, on Wednesday, after he’d sat for a long-withheld one-on-one meeting with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had dropped his objections to Finland and Sweden’s joining the alliance. “We’re proving that NATO is more needed now than it ever has been.”

Blunt reality still dictates that, for all of NATO’s stepping-up, it is Ukraine and not the United States or its European allies that is fighting Russia. For President Volodymyr Zelensky, this has been a never-ending source of frustration with Biden and the others: he is securing the flank of an alliance that refuses to allow him to join and paying for it with Ukrainian blood. “We are deterring Russia from destroying us and destroying you,” he lectured the NATO summit, via video. Zelensky is right. There is more that can and should be done: more successful efforts to stop the flow of Russian oil and gas, which is funding Putin’s war; more sophisticated weaponry to be sent to Ukraine; a concerted effort by the United States and others to break a Russian naval blockade that’s keeping Ukrainian grain from reaching the world market.

Another blunt reality is that, for all of the billions of dollars that Biden and a so-far-united U.S. Congress have sent in aid to Ukraine, Russia’s ability to fight on likely means the conflict will be measured in years and not months. The much touted financial sanctions imposed by Biden at the start of the war have not broken Putin or his regime. And the longer the war goes on, Putin seems to be reckoning, the better it looks for him.

And yet the changes in Europe prompted by Russia’s aggression—and propelled by Biden’s active diplomacy—are real, structural, and unlikely to be reversed. They are driven by a much more clear-eyed assessment of the brutal nature of the Russian regime than the wishful thinking that for twenty years often drove the West’s accommodation of Putin. The blood of Ukrainian innocents has done that much.

In the United States, however, it’s hard to see that Biden has had similar success shoring up allies against the very real prospect of Trump’s return to power. Democrats have talked—and talked and talked—about the need to safeguard elections, protect voting rights, and revamp the outdated federal law governing the Electoral College. They have not done any of these. They have also talked about accountability for Trump and those who carried out the attack on the U.S. Capitol. But, as compelling as the January 6th committee hearings have been, the panel is not set up to provide accountability; its role is to document, to gather evidence, and to tell the public a story that it urgently needs to hear. The Department of Justice might yet force Trump and his circle to face real consequences for their actions—it does appear to be actively investigating their role. But it remains hard to imagine that Biden and his Attorney General, Merrick Garland, will choose to indict a former President for the first time in history.

Unlikely, of course, does not mean impossible. Just ask Putin, who has long benefitted from the underestimation of those who thought he would never take the unlikely actions he has taken. An accurate threat assessment is the first step in any of this. Liz Cheney, the select committee’s vice-chair, offered one on Wednesday night: “we are confronting a domestic threat we have never faced before . . . a former President who is attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic.” Biden, for his part, is pretty clear-eyed these days when it comes to Putin—he dropped his name repeatedly in his summit-ending news conference with reporters, on Thursday—but, as is now his habit, he did not mention either Trump or the week’s dramatic testimony. In fact, he rarely mentions Trump and the serious ongoing threat he poses at all.

Biden even got indignant when a reporter asked him whether American instability and political dysfunction has now become a pressing concern for its allies. “America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been,” he blustered. The only “destabilizing” factor, he insisted, was the Supreme Court’s decision throwing out Roe. That is disingenuous at best.

America’s ongoing internal political crisis is the single most destabilizing factor in the world today. And Biden knows it. All the weapons shipments to Ukraine, all the tough talk about Putin and about America as the guarantor of international stability—these will mean nothing if American democracy falters. And falter it will if Trump returns to power.

So why won’t Biden just come out and say it? Why bother pretending that, except for the Supreme Court, everything is just fine in the United States? The time is late, for words and actions. ♦

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