Donald Trump’s deeply unsettling press conference with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, managed to be even worse than feared. When asked whether he trusted his own intelligence agencies or Putin on the question of meddling in the 2016 election, the president attacked Hillary Clinton, savaged the FBI, and said that he didn’t see any reason why Russia would do such a thing. It was surreal and grotesque, another awful spectacle in a presidency that delights in awful spectacles. But the event in Helsinki can also be analyzed through another prism: the very strange, bizarrely accommodating personal behavior of Trump toward Putin.
In the fall of 2016, a political science expert offered me a bit of insight into the Trump psyche. Trump was grotesque and nasty and uncouth, the expert noted, but he brilliantly mimicked—or embodied—a conception of manliness that was appealing to a lot of Americans. Voters looking for this sort of leadership surely sensed it. And however mean or gross or brutish he behaves as president, a certain number of (mostly male) American voters see his constant rudeness, his deep love for humiliating others, and his unwillingness to bow down to popular pressure or conventional wisdom to be worthy of respect. As Trump’s presidency has ricocheted between cruelty and incompetence, he has managed to keep his approval ratings above 40 percent; the gender gap in his approval is really a chasm.
But Trump made clear on Monday that his brutishness is a choice. Trump spent the past week explicitly exhibiting his dislike of NATO, the European Union, Angela Merkel, and Theresa May (the gender of the these last two probably not being a coincidence). After the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russians for their meddling in the 2016 election on Friday, Trump has been tweeting constantly about the “witch hunt” and Barack Obama—all the while praising the Russian president.
Before their private meeting in Finland on Monday, Trump offered Putin a friendly handshake and a somewhat bizarre wink in front of the world’s cameras. Trump and Putin then showed up hours later for their press conference after a longer-than-expected one-on-one and a tardy lunch. (Putin had already arrived late to start the day.) Putin began by saying the meeting had been a success and that the two countries didn’t have much reason to dislike each other. He also took time to lightly scold Trump for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and not doing enough to rein in that menace known as Ukraine. A usually irascible Trump didn’t seem offended in the least. Putin denied that Russia had played any role in election hacking.
Then it was Trump’s turn for a statement. He thanked Putin several times and congratulated him on the success of the World Cup. He brought up election meddling but did not even subtly criticize Putin, instead saying the Russian president had an interesting idea on the subject, and blaming previous U.S.–Russia disputes on lesser presidents. The leaders’ body language was telling: Trump had nodded politely at Putin’s comments; Putin would take notes and reveal almost nothing, even when complimented fulsomely by Trump. Trump was the most subdued I think I have ever heard him in public.
Then came the questions. After a reporter said Trump had called Putin a “rival,” the American president responded, “Actually, I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is. And the word competitor is a compliment.” Trump was then asked directly whether he held Russia responsible for anything; he responded by saying everyone was responsible, before once again criticizing the United States. Over time, things degenerated in the ways that they tend to do when Trump is speaking. He kept ranting—but again, in a more subdued fashion—about his election win and kept making the point that the Mueller investigation was really about denying him a fair victory.
It’s easy enough to say that the press conference was surreal for the obvious reasons: It did, after all, feature an American president bashing Democrats, the media, and the people investigating Russian interference while standing next to and nodding along with the man responsible for that interference. But it was even weirder than that: So many aspects of his personality that we have become accustomed to seemed to vanish. The digressions were still there, the solipsism was ever present, the obsession with his election was front and center, but I have never seen him behave this way with another person. He even offered a few seemingly sincere smiles.
It’s easy to forget that we have an American president who hates to read policy papers, knows nothing about the world, and goes about his business with a blustery dislike of everyone except his staunchest supporters. And yet, for some reason, this president is incapable or unwilling of being anything other than persistently accommodating and generous toward the leader of Russia. The angry nationalism that is the defining feature of Trump’s other global policies is gone; the stated belief that everyone is out to get and take advantage of the United States is absent. In its place are warm words about friendship and togetherness and a personal style that seems completely foreign to this president. Trump has always been someone whose behavior and bearing were as disturbing as his policies, whose affect was as frightening as his words. Monday was no exception.