War Stories

A Less-Than-Perfect Conversation

Trump’s off-the-rails press conference with the president of Finland suggests it’s going to be a very long autumn.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In normal times, the last thing one might expect from a joint press conference with Donald Trump and the president of Finland is to hear the latter criticize the former, but that’s what happened Wednesday afternoon.

As is customary at such events, Trump, after reading his own statement, gave the visiting head of state, Sauli Niinistö, a few minutes to make some remarks. Niniisto used the occasion to jab at Trump’s hostility to Europe and, in more oblique terms, his possible threat to American democracy.

“Europe needs the U.S.,” Niinistö acknowledged, “but the U.S. also needs Europe.” He added, “We know the price of everything. We should also recognize the value of everything.” The remark is play on a well-known line from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windemere’s Fan, in which Lord Darlington defines a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seemed pretty clear that the Finnish president was calling his American counterpart a cynic.

Niinistö then said that, during his time in Washington, he’d visited the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian. “You have a great democracy,” he said, then added, turning to Trump, “keep it going on.”

As an avid follower of political news, Niinistö must have known that the remark would be heard in the context of fears about the future of American democracy. When a reporter asked him if that was what he meant, if he had fears about that future, Niinistö didn’t deny it, saying only, “I am inspired what the American people have gained in these decades. So, keep it going.”

Finally, he also said that he’d urged Trump to keep open talks on arms control, including extending the New START nuclear treaty, which President Barack Obama signed with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010 and is set to expire in 2021. Trump is known to be no fan of that treaty or of any other deal negotiated by Obama.

Niinistö, who has been Finland’s president since 2012, is able to speak on this issue with some independence. During the Cold War, Finland—nominally a U.S. ally but never a member of NATO—survived by maintaining good ties with both the East and the West, and it continues to advocate for improving relations with Russia, though Niinistö did criticize the annexation of Crimea. Finland is also about to make a major purchase of military aircraft and is considering the wares of competing U.S. and European companies, a point Niinistö made at the press conference.

For his part, Trump spent most of the press conference railing against the Democrats’ impeachment probe, which he once again denounced as a “hoax” amounting, possibly, to “treason.” In the course of the diatribe, he told several lies—and revealed, as he has a few times in recent days—that his biggest complaint is based on a complete misunderstanding.

His main argument is that Rep. Adam Schiff (or, as he calls him, “Shifty Schiff”), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, delivered a false rendering of Trump’s now-infamous phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At a committee hearing on Sept. 26, Schiff did paraphrase the conversation in a very crude, caricatured manner, portraying Trump’s subtle pressure campaign against Zelensky in much harsher terms. But this was clearly a caricature: No one should have mistaken it as a word-for-word reading. Except that’s what Trump did, saying that Schiff “took that perfect conversation I had with the president, and he made up a total fabrication.” That “has to be a crime … treason.”

Even if Schiff had pretended his paraphrase was an exact quote, he wouldn’t have committed a crime, much less treason, which the Constitution defines very narrowly as consisting “only in levying war” against the United States or in “adhering” to its enemies, “giving them aid and comfort.”

Trump further said that the media’s criticism of the conversation is based on Schiff’s speech about it, not on the “transcript”—actually, a very detailed memorandum describing and often quoting from it—released by the White House. In fact, the criticism is based entirely on that White House document, which is rare in the annals of American politics in that it showed the “smoking gun”—which often materializes in the final act of a scandal—in the opening scene.

Trump also said that the whistleblower’s complaint—which he described as “vicious”—differs from the transcript, when in fact the two are quite consistent. He also speculated that Schiff’s staff wrote the complaint before the story was made public, suggesting that the whole business—as he has said of the Mueller report—is a conspiracy hatched by those who are trying to reverse the 2016 election.

The president said that he withheld military aid from Ukraine not to pressure Zelensky, but because he’s tired of being “the sucker country,” giving the country way more money than its neighbors in Europe. In fact, the European Union and its financial institutions have given Ukraine $16.4 billion since 2014, while the amount of U.S. aid held up by Trump amounted to just under $400 million.

When Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked what he wanted Zelensky to do in exchange resuming the aid, Trump went off, practically screaming at him to ask the Finnish president a question. Even by Trump standards, it was bizarre and unnerving.

Finally, Trump indulged in the conspiracy theory, pursued by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and, more recently, Attorney General William Barr, that the same cabal of corrupt Democrats and media ginned up the charges—about collusion with Russia—that put special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in motion. In the day’s most rambling remarks, Trump said he would soon be “bringing a lot of litigation against a lot of people” for “what they did to my people,” who came to Washington “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” and wound up getting served subpoenas. He also lashed out against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, he said, “hands out subpoenas like they’re cookies.”

It’s going to be a long, grueling autumn.