“Trump’s warm embrace of Putin throughout a lengthy news conference was an extraordinary capstone to their first formal summit here Monday, where the two presidents spent two hours speaking alone, joined only by their interpreters,” my colleagues reported from Helsinki. The details of that two-hour discussion have yet to fully emerge, but the presser itself will go down in the annals of American diplomatic history.
Trump appeared to side with the Kremlin over his own nation's intelligence community, accepting Putin's “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. He also branded the special counsel's investigation “ridiculous” and “a disaster for our country” just days after it produced an indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials. Those officials were charged with hacking and stealing emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee as part of a wider operation that, as my colleagues reported, U.S. officials believe was ordered directly by Putin to help Trump win office.
Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
Trump, of course, resents any suggestion that his 2016 victory was tarnished by outside efforts. In Helsinki, even as Putin admitted he had wanted Trump to win the election, Trump parroted right-wing conspiracy theories about Democrats perpetrating the hacks. But Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, issued a blunt statement that seemed to rebut Trump's equivocating. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” it read.
Other U.S. politicians were far more scathing. “Today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency,” said a statement from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an inveterate Putin critic who described the summit as a mistake. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
It seemed an almost fitting end to Trump's tumultuous tour through Europe. The president had made acrimonious stops in Brussels and Britain, where he renewed his attacks on various pillars of the transatlantic alliance and undermined the British prime minister in a pair of controversial interviews with right-wing London tabloids. Sizing up the chaos left in Trump's wake, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday that Europe “can no longer completely rely on the White House” and had to resolve its own divisions — divisions that Trump, a champion of far-right populists, has stoked.
Just last week, Trump branded the European Union a “foe” — a stark contrast to his comment in Helsinki that Putin is a “good competitor,” a remark he made sure to point out was “a compliment.”
Such a cuddly stance, combined with Trump's refusal to publicly back his own government's consensus on Russian interference, constituted a “betrayal,” argued The Washington Post's editorial board. “In refusing to acknowledge the plain facts about Russia’s behavior, while trashing his own country’s justice system, Mr. Trump in fact was openly colluding with the criminal leader of a hostile power,” The Post's editorial concluded.
“It is hard to compare anything to a US president doubting the word of his own intelligence agencies while standing next to the leader of America’s main geopolitical adversary,” wrote Edward Luce of the Financial Times. “The future of the western alliance is now in severe doubt. Trump has made sure of that.”
Today is a good day for Putin and the oligarchs in Russia. It is a bad day for people in the United States and all over the world who believe in democracy and who are trying to understand what world our idiot president lives in.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 16, 2018
Putin, meanwhile, probably got exactly what he wanted. Officials in Moscow welcome Trump's supposedly “pragmatic” approach, shorn of posturing over universal values or pestering about human rights or the rule of law. “To Putin and other Russians who have long rejected talk of democratic values and human rights as a façade for furthering American power, Trump’s disinterest for such talk has appeared refreshing — and advantageous,” wrote my colleague Anton Troianovski. “Putin allies have touted Trump’s 'pragmatism' compared to predecessors such as President Barack Obama, who often spoke of the need for countries such as Ukraine to evolve as democratic societies.”
According to the Associated Press, the Komsomolskaya Pravda congratulated the American leader for engaging Putin, no matter the “opposition from his own elite and the hysterics of the media.” In contrast to the outrage roiling U.S. news channels, the Russian media reaction to the summit was more calm and cautious. The moment marks only the beginning of a potential thaw in a relationship that has been in deep freeze. And while Trump may be well disposed to Putin, there's a belief that his administration still hews to a broadly hawkish line on Russia.
“Russia’s largely Kremlin-friendly TV networks, websites and newspapers portrayed Trump as a political maverick who is being unfairly targeted by his own compatriots,” the AP noted in a roundup of coverage in Moscow.
Ultimately, the meeting in Helsinki allowed Putin the opportunity to appear on equal footing with the leader of the world's sole superpower, and a platform to discuss his view of key global challenges on his own terms. “This was the summit Putin has been waiting for his entire life,” said Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution, in a phone conference with reporters after the Helsinki presser. “He completely set the agenda.”
The irony is that Putin needed the summit more than Trump, yet came away looking far more poised and comfortable. “Russia’s president is under pressure at home right now. Despite easily winning reelection in March, his popularity has been slipping,” wrote Elena Chernenko, foreign editor at Kommersant, an independent Russian newspaper. “He has even faced protests against his government’s pension reform plan. But one way that Mr. Putin knows how to appeal to Russians is by appearing tough and in control on the world stage. Mr. Trump made that easy for him.”
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