We’ve all been there, at least those of us with children. (And those of us without children have all, at some point, been the child.) I came downstairs the other day and heard the faint crackle of a bag of chips being fiddled with coming from the kitchen.
When I entered, I saw my toddler, just inches from the bag, now clearly dropped on the floor. The orange tint of barbecue seasoning covered most of her right hand as well as the area around her mouth, some of her nose and more than a few strands of her dirty blonde hair.
“What happened?” I asked.
Without missing a beat, my daughter replied, “Hershey did it.”
Such denials and shifting of blame to siblings — who, in this particular case, were nowhere near the vicinity of the kitchen — are quite common in my house of nine children. But they’re also quite common in the world at large, where flat-out denials can be used in the attempt to spare an accused from a lengthy jail sentence, the threat of impeachment or, say, to get off on the right foot with the leader of a rival country.
But whereas my children, as do probably all children everywhere, honestly believe they can get away with it — even when caught red-handed, their crumby digits crammed in the proverbial cookie jar — rare is the adult who believes a simple denial will suffice. Rarer still is the leader who, the contrary conclusions of a veritable army of investigators notwithstanding, buys such a denial and pawns it off as proof of one’s innocence.
Which brings us to the disastrous press conference in Helsinki, Finland, presided over by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the debacle — widely condemned by a bipartisan chorus stretching across Capitol Hill and on all major news networks, including Fox News — Trump, a man who has developed a brand from insulting, excoriating, upbraiding and borderline bullying other world leaders, accepted Putin’s categorical denial that Russia had anything to do with interfering in the 2016 presidential election by, among other things, hacking into emails at the Democratic National Committee.
This was three days after 12 suspected Russian intelligence officers were indicted for doing just that and more than a year after a conclusion by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in our electoral process.
The FBI and others in law enforcement “said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia.
“I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he added. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
My, how the justice system would be so much more efficient if such denials carried as much weight as Putin’s did in Trump’s eyes this week! After a lengthy presentation by the prosecutor, all defense counsel would need to do is call the defendant to the stand and ask him if he committed the crime. When the answer came back in the negative, the judge could dismiss the jury and send everyone home.
Thankfully, our justice system is more interested in facts than in magic combinations of words. Our president should be as well.
Some have chalked Trump’s warm embrace of Putin up to his refusal to believe any intelligence that would somehow invalidate his success two years ago. But as at least one Republican senator pointed out, you can accept the idea that Russia interfered while also accepting the idea that it had nothing to do with the Republican victory or that there was no collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. The Russians didn’t force Democrats to nominate an incredibly flawed candidate; nor did they make Hillary Clinton ignore Michigan.
Others have sought to explain Trump’s posture as a calculated gambit designed to extract future concessions out of a mollified Putin. But that explanation completely ignores Trump’s seemingly preferred tactic — on display just last week in his dealings with NATO — of “negotiating” through threats and outrageous demands.
Whatever the reason, Trump’s performance on July 16 was incredibly damaging to America’s standing in the world and might end up damaging Trump’s “America First” presidency. Perhaps that’s why the next day, after he had returned to Washington and before he huddled with concerned Republican congressmen at the White House, Trump backtracked. By way of clarifying his earlier remarks, the president said he misspoke and meant to say that he didn’t have any reason to doubt that Russia meddled in the election.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all,” Trump said.
It’s the kind of clarification I and all other parents get when we continue the conversation after catching our children in the throes of various misdeeds. The only problem is, I can’t quite figure out who the toddler was in Helsinki.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at email@example.com.