In the run-up to the Trump-Putin summit, many wondered how the Mueller investigation’s latest indictment would impact the outcome. After all, the language of the indictment was very specific and very detailed. Russian intelligence officers were mentioned by name. More to the point, the indictment revealed that Russian hackers were inside the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee for far longer than we knew. They had access to the DNC’s analytics, their data on voters and opponents.
Russians certainly would have used that data to run their own online campaigns, using the fake social media accounts that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III revealed in a previous indictment. It is very possible that they gave that same data to people working for Donald Trump, perhaps even to one of those who are already in prison or under indictment — Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, George Papadopoulos — for their contacts with the Russian government in 2016.
In the wake of this indictment, journalists, members of Congress and others demanded that President Trump “bring this up” at the summit, that he push back, that he sanction Russia further. Some even thought the summit should be canceled.
But what if everyone has misunderstood Trump and his intentions? After all, what Mueller has just proved, beyond any doubt, is that the Russian hacking and social media operations on Trump’s behalf were far more extensive, and far more important, than we knew. There is no further room to doubt that Vladimir Putin definitely helped him win the election.
From Trump’s point of view, the purpose of this summit, therefore, was to thank the Russian president for his assistance.
Listen to the American president’s language. There was equivocating, “blame America first” language: “I think that the United States has been foolish, I think we’ve all been foolish. … We’re all to blame.” There was denial of any personal or Russian responsibility for election interference: “zero collusion.” Trump attacked “Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct” and the Mueller “probe,” which he said was ruining the U.S.-Russia relationship. In front of the world’s media, he attacked the FBI, allegedly for not investigating “the server” and “Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.” By contrast, he flattered Putin, first by staging the event and holding a one-on-one, no-advisers-present conversation, and second by going out of his way, over and over again, to stress Putin’s importance and significance — he was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial” — language that will be used, in Russia, to reinforce his claim to power.
Trump has just composed the most elaborate thank-you note in history. As millions watched around the world, he said it out loud: Thank you, Vladimir Putin, for helping me win my campaign!