Editorial: For many on both sides, the president has crossed the line

When historians look back at the period we’re living in, they will write that the president of the United States groveled before Vladimir Putin at the summit in Helsinki, Finland.

We don’t use the word “groveled” lightly: retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Peters, a former Fox News commentator, used it in describing the news conference President Donald Trump and Mr. Putin held Monday.

He also used the word “despicable” to describe Mr. Trump’s trashing of the American intelligence community for concluding that the Russians hacked American emails in a bid to help Mr. Trump get elected. And he went even further, saying Mr. Trump was “licking” Mr. Putin’s boots by saying the Russian president had assured him his country had done no such thing. 

Sen. John McCain, one of the few prominent Republicans to sharply criticize Mr. Trump’s comments, said his conduct was “the most despicable thing” he could imagine an American president doing. Former CIA director John Brennan called his behavior “treasonous.”

One reason our president’s fawning praise of Mr. Putin has continued since he was elected may be that the Russians have something on him — a point several commentators made this week. How, they asked, can you explain Mr. Trump’s criticism of the European Union and NATO, his denunciation of Britain’s prime minister and his sitting on Mr. Putin’s lap unless something is being held over his head?

What could that something be? After leaving the White House, former aide Steve Bannon hinted that the scandal-in-waiting involved money laundering by Mr. Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

To Mr. Trump, of course, all of this is “fake news.” And the special prosecutor’s investigation of Russia’s involvement in the election is a “witch hunt.” His labeling of the American press corps as the country’s true enemies is music to the ears of Mr. Putin, whose government has murdered journalists and poisoned critics. The Russians have participated in the slaughter of thousands in Syria and pro-Putin militia shot down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine with a Russian-made missile, killing 298 passengers.

Clearly, Mr. Trump doesn’t have a problem with any of this. Nor does he have a problem labeling NATO and the EU as outdated and treating Great Britain as an enemy power — again, music to Mr. Putin’s ears. 

The president’s America First banner has taken on the sheen of something anti-American and pro-Russian — and we, as Americans, need to fully understand why. The Mueller probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 election could not be more vital to our democracy.

In his recent New York Times column, Bret Stephens began: “Some near-forgotten anniversaries are worth commemorating. One hundred years ago — Bastille Day, 1918 — Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat at the Second Battle of the Marne. Twenty-six years later, Quentin’s oldest brother, Ted, also died in France, after landing at Utah Beach on D-Day.”

Mr. Stephens wrote that the brothers fought and died for the “possibility and preservation of a free world, anchored and inspired by America but not subservient to it.” He wrote that Mr. Trump had “undisguised contempt” for European democracy, and characterized his presidency as “a historical disaster” for America.

The now-infamous press conference — with Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin standing side by side, exchanging pleasantries and a soccer ball — may one day be seen as the watershed moment in this presidency. There was Mr. Trump before Monday, and Mr. Trump after Monday. What comes next will likely be a product of the Mueller probe. And at this point, there’s no turning back.

While Democrats are united in their contempt for Mr. Trump, all but a handful of Republicans seem unable to find their voices. They need to begin standing up for our country and put aside obsequious loyalty to their president.

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