After more than two hours in private Monday at their summit in Helsinki, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin indulged in some of their favorite conspiracy theories. Trump spoke of “the Pakistani gentleman,” echoing false right-wing media reports about a Democratic IT worker, and reprised the debunked theory that the Democratic National Committee withheld its servers — and critical information — from law enforcement. Putin went down the George-Soros-as-puppet-master rabbit hole and claimed, falsely, that a London-based antagonist of his had given Hillary Clinton $400 million. Predictably, the two agreed that the narrative of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — supported by a body of evidence that seems to swell by the day — could not possibly be true because, as Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” (Of course, he insisted the next day that he’d meant to say the exact opposite.) Putin gave Trump a soccer ball commemorating the World Cup, but the two may as well have exchanged tinfoil hats.
ABOVE: The lights briefly went out in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday as President Trump read a statement meant to clarify his Helsinki summit comments. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
The summit left official Washington in shock, seeking some explanation for Trump’s refusal yet again to confront, or even criticize, Putin. Whatever it may have shown about Russian kompromat or Trump collusion, at a deeper level the meeting was even more revealing. Putin, it turns out, is no longer alone in the world. After years of churning out fabulist explanations for Russian actions that always exonerate the Russian government, the Kremlin has finally found a willing audience for Putin’s version of reality: the leader of the free world.
“It’s hard for me to imagine their conversation,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who served as a Putin adviser during his first decade in power. “They’re both very strange people.”
Putin’s government has long insisted that its actions are not to blame for the sad state of the Russian-American relationship — not Russia’s grant of asylum to Edward Snowden, not its annexation of Crimea, not the war in eastern Ukraine, not the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the deaths of the 298 people on board, not the indiscriminate bombing of Syrian cities and targeted strikes on aid convoys trying to help them, not the support for far-right candidates in Europe. And certainly not the hacking of the U.S. presidential election in order to kneecap Hillary Clinton and boost Trump.
Whenever he is confronted with these allegations, Putin demands proof. When he is given proof, he claims it’s fake. Anything that proves him to be at fault is publicly labeled a provocation — Russian for “fake news” — and anything that proves him innocent is truth, no matter how baffling, bizarre or downright impossible.
And now, the Kremlin has a U.S. president whose understanding of truth aligns so well with the Russian one that it’s become increasingly difficult to tell them apart. On his way to meet Putin in Helsinki, Trump tweeted what Russians have long insisted: This state of affairs is all Barack Obama’s fault. “It’s nice to hear that Obama is at fault for everything,” Pavlovsky says of how the tweet went down in Moscow.
Alexey Pushkov, a prominent Russian senator, tweeted the same. “The unreasonableness and stupidity of the USA (read — Obama) plus the ‘witch hunt’ are the reasons, according to Trump, for the terminally ruined relations with Russia,” Pushkov wrote. “These words will bring out insanity in his enemies, but this is the declaration of a realist. We can only hope that realism will prevail.”
Other presidents have responded by either rebuking and lecturing Putin (as George W. Bush did in 2005) or simply waiting out the tirades from Putin and his foreign minister at the start of every meeting and phone call, a ritual that Obama officials called, derisively, “the airing of grievances.”
So the most significant victory for Putin is that he finally has a partner in the White House who believes his version of events without having to be convinced. Putin has been playing a game of epistemological chicken with the United States, and finally, the United States, in the person of Trump, has blinked. Who needs to air grievances when you agree on them? Says Igor Yurgens, a political consultant once close to Putin, “From what they showed us, he was speaking rationally.”
To Russian observers, it seemed like nothing else really happened at the summit. No agreement was signed, and apparently, no issue of substance was discussed: not Syria, not Ukraine, not human rights. (Still, the Russian Ministry of Defense jumped on the vague talk of cooperation, saying Tuesday that it was ready to implement Trump and Putin’s vision of national security.) But the news conference after the meeting showed that Trump is an ally on the most fundamental level. This is why, the day after the summit, the Russian mission to the United Nations issued a tweet asserting disproven information about the MH17 disaster. The Kremlin was clearly feeling good about its truth.
“We were right about everything all along, and all we needed was some patience for everyone else to realize it,” Moscow political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann says of how this turn of events is perceived in Russia. “Life is just a string of confirmation of our wisdom and vision. You just need to see it the right way.”
This isn’t an academic question of interpretation. Seeing it the right way — or the wrong way — has real policy implications. If America is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in its relationship with Russia, as Trump seems to agree, then why do we impose sanctions on Russian officials and companies? This has been Russia’s position all along. Even before Trump’s inauguration, his then-national security adviser Michael Flynn was planning on unwinding Russia sanctions unilaterally. This suited the Russians just fine. In public statements, the Kremlin made clear that sanctions imposed by Washington could be undone only by Washington; Russia had absolutely nothing to do with it. You imposed the sanctions for no reason, the logic went; you remove them for no reason. To do anything else would be to admit fault, and this is something Putin, the consummate zero-sum man, does not do. It shows weakness, it paves the way to defeat.
Now Putin has what he wanted: a man in the White House who really understands him, who sees things from the same perspective, who sees things the right way. As Putin put it Monday: “Yes, I did [want Trump to win]. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” He meant, of course, what Russia defines as normal. After Helsinki, it’s clear that Trump’s definition is just about the same.