Coons: Trump failing to stand up to Russia

Sen. Chris Coons

DOVER — Americans must be prepared to stand up for democracy and human rights in response to Russian geopolitical ambitions, Delaware’s junior senator said Monday.

At the same time as President Donald Trump was concluding a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sen. Chris Coons was giving a speech at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, outlining the threat Russia poses to the west and why the United States must stand firm.

“‘Once to each American generation falls a moment, a moment we must stand and act to prove that we believe what we say, to demonstrate to the world that our democracy is more than some carved word on a marble monument but a thing for which we are willing to stand up, to serve, to fight — not against each other but together in a way that makes real the promise of America to the world,’” the Democrat said, quoting a message his dying father imparted on him last year. “Chautauquans, today is that moment.”

With its 2014 invasion of Crimea, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, persecution of LGBT individuals and assassination of critics, Russia poses a distinct threat to the world and to democracy, he told the audience in his speech, which was livestreamed online.

His words came in stark contrast to President Trump’s comments: The president brought up Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails when asked about Russia’s attempts to influence the result of the election and said an investigation into Russian meddling has been “a disaster for our country.”

President Putin’s denial of hacking, President Trump said, was “very powerful.”

U.S. intelligence has concluded Russia did attempt to influence the election, and former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been leading a special investigation into the interference. On Friday, 12 Russians were indicted for “large-scale cyber operations” aimed at harming the Clinton campaign in 2016.

President Trump was lambasted by many for his comments, with former CIA Director John Brennan calling them “nothing short of treasonous.” Delaware’s senior senator, Democrat Tom Carper, on Twitter called President Trump’s confidence in President Putin’s claim “disgraceful.”

Sen. Coons both criticized and issued advice to President Trump, focusing on what he believes the proper response to Russian actions should be.

“For President Trump to fail to confront a hostile power for interfering in our democracy is to fail to defend our nation, and it makes us less safe,” Sen. Coons said. “So, what happens from here?

“I’m concerned our president, in his eagerness to resolve these tensions with Putin or brush them aside, is right now in the process of dealing a critical blow to the security, unity and strength of NATO, which has been crucial to our security and prosperity for 70 years.”

The United States should refuse to recognize the annexation of Crimea and should keep sanctions on Russia, he said. At the same time, Sen. Coons told the audience, the country should be willing to work with Russia in some areas, such as combating climate change and terrorism, much as the United States and the Soviet Union collaborated on scientific efforts and nuclear treaties during the Cold War.

While he agrees with President Trump that fellow NATO members should spend more on defense, Sen. Coons said the president “continues to gripe as if these are unpaid dues to some country club without recognizing — without recognizing — that 1,044 non-American NATO troops have died fighting alongside ours in Afghanistan.”

President Trump is also correct in his assessment that much of Europe is dependent on exported oil and gas from Russia, which must be changed, Sen. Coons opined.

Although President Trump has praised President Putin, calling him a “good competitor,” Sen. Coons described him as a dictator who rules with an iron fist and will not stop his efforts to influence the world to Russia’s benefit unless made to.

“The fantasy that somehow Putin is a great guy who’s just a competitor, who just wants a little respect and we can all move forward from this messiness around Crimea and our elections, is a delusion,” he said.

Rather than trying to better Russia, President Putin “prefers the role of spoiler, seeking to disrupt the societies of the United States and Europe,” Sen. Coons said.

The upcoming elections will likely be targeted by Russia, he said, comparing potential cyberattacks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

He received applause at several points during the speech, such as when he said Congress should require social media companies to disclose accounts run by Russian bots or propagandists.

Sen. Coons said he hopes Russia will at some point become a democracy but doubts it will happen soon.

As he noted, American attitudes on Russia have become extremely polarized, dividing people based on party lines.

According to a March survey from the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic said Russia is a major threat, while 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said the same. That same poll reported 25 percent of Republicans view President Putin positively but only 9 percent of Democrats do.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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