Trump began the news conference Monday by asserting that Russo-American relations have been worse than ever before, “but that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.” Asked whether he blamed Russia for that strained relationship, Trump immediately reverted to the kind of both-sides rhetoric he employed after a white supremacist allegedly killed a counterprotester in Charlottesville last year — and also previously when asked about Putin killing political opponents (“You think our country's so innocent?” Trump said last year).
“Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said. “I think the United States has been foolish. … I think we’re all to blame.”
When a reporter asked Putin about Russian election interference in 2016, Trump actually volunteered to answer the first part of the reporter's question, practically offering his own defenses of Putin. He used the time to assert that Democrats were coming up with excuses for their electoral loss.
"It came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election which, frankly, they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans," Trump said.
When Trump was again asked about Russian interference and whether he had told Putin to never do it again, he ignored the question and riffed for a couple minutes on a conspiracy theory about why the Democratic National Committee didn't turn over its server to federal authorities. The hack of the DNC was at the center of the 12 indictments handed down Friday by Robert S. Mueller III, and Trump expressed significantly more concern about this piece of evidence than the actual alleged wrongdoing.
Indeed, Trump's first impulse when asked about Russian interference was instantly and repeatedly to shift blame and to insert reasons to doubt the findings and objectivity of his own government. He cited Peter Strzok again. He suggested for the umpteenth time that he can't do anything to force Putin's hand: “All I can do is ask the question.” He stood by as Putin denied interfering in any U.S. affairs — a position Trump's entire government regards as a lie. He called Mueller's probe a “witch hunt” right before ending the news conference.
Putin even seemed to troll Trump. With Trump standing next to him, Putin attacked his regular American antagonist, Bill Browder, for his ties to Democrats. Those ties to Democrats, you might recall, were part of the package of information offered to Trump's campaign at the Trump Tower meeting with a Putin-aligned lawyer. Even as Putin was denying interference, he brought up something that recalls perhaps the most ignominious collusion-related event of the 2016 campaign.
Republicans have largely shrugged off Trump's flirtation with Russia before. It's easy to dismiss it as Trump liking strongmen and/or being sore about the idea that he didn't win the 2016 election on his own merits. He's a prideful man.
But Monday was the clearest indication to date that Trump has basically no appetite for holding Putin responsible. Even insofar as the Mueller investigation is holding Russia responsible for what happened in the 2016 election — and not Trump's own campaign — Trump dismisses the entire thing as a witch hunt.
People like the idea of diplomacy and even talking to leaders such as Putin. But the downside of these summits is that they can lend legitimacy to your enemies and even allow them to use you for propaganda wins.
Trump handed Putin the propaganda win we all suspected might be coming: He sided with Russia over his own government, repeatedly and with the whole world watching. Putin probably can't believe his luck.