The Trump–Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday was the most appalling appearance by an American president on a foreign stage in recent memory, perhaps in all of history.
In one sense, the summit between the leaders wasn’t as bad as many expected, in that President Trump didn’t seem to concede much on policy (unless he did so secretly in the two leaders’ one-on-one session). But in another sense, it was much worse than anyone might have imagined, in that Trump proved himself to be completely in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pocket.
Really, any member of Trump’s national security team who doesn’t resign immediately—or perhaps better, offer to testify about any incriminating information they might possess—is from this point on doing a disservice to the United States.
The moment that should have been a turning point for all Americans was when Trump was asked whom he believes on the question of whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election: Putin, who denies all involvement, or the U.S. intelligence community, which unanimously and firmly concludes otherwise.
Trump’s reply was, even by his standards, astonishing. First, he tried to skirt the issue, asking what happened to the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers, what happened to Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails, why isn’t the FBI looking into those mysteries. Then he said this: “President Putin said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it should be … I will tell you, President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
So there you have it. Asked to choose between the verbal assurances of the Russian president (a former KGB officer who has lied about all offensive cyberoperations against the West) and the detailed reports of U.S. intelligence agencies (as well as the repeated testimony of his own entire national security team), Trump chose the Russian spy.
Jaws should have dropped further when, a few moments later, Putin issued a “non-denial denial” of staggeringly obvious proportions. In response to a similar question, the Russian president said that when Trump came to Moscow in 2013, which is when some analysts think the special relationship began, “I didn’t even know he was in Moscow.” Even if this is true, it’s irrelevant, as several Russian intelligence officers, including some from Putin’s inner circle, knew Trump was there; according to some reports, they held at least one meeting with him.
Finally there was this moment: Asked by a reporter whether he would extradite the 12 Russian intelligence officers named in the Justice Department’s indictment last week, Putin offered to have his security team talk with those officers—and invited special counsel Robert Mueller to send questions and even to come witness the interrogation. However, Putin added, in exchange for this favor, Russia would insist on “reciprocity”—that is, he would demand access to “people of interest for us” in the United States (presumably, Russian spies who have been captured).
Amazingly, Trump thought this was a great idea—“an incredible offer,” he called it. Was he unaware that any such interrogation in Moscow would be a show? Did he miss the implications of letting Russian agents in on a U.S. counterintelligence operation against other Russian agents? Could he really be so naïve and so uninformed? The answer appears to be: Yes.
On the issues usually discussed at such a summit, there seemed to be little or no progress—and given Putin’s wiliness and Trump’s eagerness to please, this is probably for the best. Putin started off the news conference by describing the talks as “frank and businesslike”—a euphemism from Cold War times for “unproductive.”
Trump and Putin both talked of the need to restore trust and to engage on issues where their interests converge. This would be a common-sense sentiment in most meetings of this sort. But it amounts to little, given the lack of basis for much trust and the array of issues on which the two nations’ interests collide.
Putin, at least, acknowledged this fact. He mentioned the desire to extend the term of the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty, which was signed with President Obama in 2010 (and which both sides have obeyed ever since). However, Putin also linked the extension to cutbacks in U.S. missile-defense programs and a ban on placing weapons in outer space—both ideas that go against Trump’s policies. Putin mentioned cooperation in Syria, but only in the context of “de-confliction”—i.e., the ongoing communications between U.S. and Russian military personnel to ensure that their planes don’t crash into one another. Putin also expressed concerns about Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He claimed that Russia took over Crimea only after a referendum. And he blamed Kiev for ongoing violations of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.
All of which raised, once again, the question posed by many in recent days: Why did this summit take place? What interests did it serve? For Putin, the answer is clear: to erase Russia’s isolation, reassert its claims as a world power, and solidify its attachment to the American president—just days after this president re-articulated his own hostility toward NATO and the European Union.
Early Monday morning, just before the summit got underway, Trump sent out an eyebrow-raising tweet blaming the poor state of U.S.–Russia relations on the “foolishness and stupidity” of previous presidents and the “Rigged Witch Hunt” of the Mueller investigation. Asked at the press conference whether he blamed Russia even a little bit for these tensions, Trump replied, “I hold both countries accountable. We’ve all been foolish,” though he didn’t mention a single instance of Russian foolishness. He then went on a tear about how he beat Hillary Clinton fair and square—“no collusion.”
Trump’s message for Putin was clear: I will not blame you for anything. I will not demand compromises on matters that you hold dear in return for my own good favor. At one point, Trump said, “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now”—overlooking 45 years of the Cold War, which included crises in Berlin and Cuba that nearly triggered World War III. He then said: “However, that changed as of about four hours ago,” adding, “I really believe that.”
Does he believe that? Why? What happened, except that the two leaders met for longer than they’ve met in the past?
The good news: Trump didn’t give away the store. He said nothing about sanctions relief, halting arms shipments to Ukraine, ending reinforcements to the defense of the Baltics, withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria unilaterally, or any of the other one-sided concessions that some feared he might put on the table. Or at least he didn’t say anything about these issues publicly. (We may never know what was said in the two-hour one-on-one session with not even note-takers present.)
However, Trump also said, looking at Putin, “I’m sure we will be meeting again in the future—often.” So the opportunities to cave are not exhausted. What will Trump’s top advisers do in the meantime? All of them are skittish about his skepticism and passivity toward Russia’s threat to our democracy. Trump’s national intelligence director, Dan Coats, recently likened the warnings of an impending Russian cyberoffensive to the red lights that were flashing in the months leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Now that Trump has clearly and publicly declared what side he’s on, what will these aides do?