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It's been a week since President Trump met his Russian counterpart in Helsinki, and Washington is still dealing with the rancor and confusion that resulted. American foreign-policy officials were stunned by Trump's behavior, which ranged from rejecting his intelligence community's assessment that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election to considering, albeit briefly, handing over a number of current and former American diplomats for questioning by Russian authorities. His performance earned rebukes from lawmakers and former officials, and even a retort from his own director of national intelligence.

Despite the fallout, the White House issued a surprise invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington later this year. The prospect of a second summit also surprised official Washington, not least because there are still so many questions about what transpired during the first. Before staging their now-infamous news conference in the Finnish capital, Trump and Putin held a two-hour private discussion, accompanied only by interpreters. Even key officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, have been left in the dark.

According to my colleagues' latest reporting, Trump and Putin discussed Russian efforts to collaborate with Israel in Syria, as well as the touchy subject of Ukraine. Russian officials suggested that the duo had talked about staging a referendum in regions of the country held by Russian-backed separatists, but U.S. officials subsequently denied ever agreeing to such a scenario. Since the meeting, Russia has continued to refer to "agreements" supposedly hashed out between the two leaders — ones the White House has done little to confirm or explain.

Amid tensions with Russia, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down before their summit July 16 in Helsinki’s Presidential Palace. (The Washington Post)

The lack of clarity was in keeping with a week of mixed messaging. The White House has made numerous tortured attempts to walk back the president's comments and passivity toward Putin. But those attempts have not made much of a dent in the expert consensus around what happened in Helsinki, while Trump's continued tweeting about the "big hoax" — that is, the special counsel investigation into Russian interference — made clear his true feelings on the matter.

Trump "failed to declare Russian meddling in Western democracies unacceptable. If Mr. Putin does not feel emboldened now, when will he?" asked Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States, in the New York Times. "Who will now believe that interfering in democratic elections comes at a price? Mr. Trump’s performance seemed to indicate that America is ready to give up its ambition to be the free world’s respected leader."

"We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy," wrote the New Yorker's Susan Glasser. "But, even if we don’t know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here’s what we already do know as a result of the summit: America’s government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated; and its ability to lead an alliance in Europe whose main mission in recent years has been to counter and contain renewed Russian aggression has been seriously called into question."

Garry Kasparov, a former chess grandmaster and prominent Russian dissident-in-exile, voiced the fears of a growing number of people within the Washington establishment. "The President will always have dominion over foreign policy, and that includes inviting the leaders of hostile dictatorships to the White House," wrote Kasparov. "But Congress can and must begin to work now to ensure that Putin leaves only with Trump’s loyalty, and not with the rest of the silver and the keys to the country."

Outside of the foreign policy community, the reaction has been more mixed. A Washington Post-ABC poll conducted last week found that 33 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin, while 50 percent disapprove. "A sizable 18 percent say they have no opinion. A slightly larger 56 percent disapprove of Trump expressing doubts about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election," my colleagues detailed. "On both questions, those who say they 'strongly disapprove' of Trump’s performance outnumber those who say they 'strongly approve' by better than 2 to 1."

But the poll also illustrates why the fallout from Helsinki may not be as politically problematic for Trump as many commentators first suggested: "Most Americans do not feel Trump went 'too far' in supporting Putin, and while more Americans say U.S. leadership has gotten weaker than stronger under Trump, his ratings on this question are slightly improved from last fall," my colleagues noted.

Despite offering couched criticism of Trump over the course of the week, Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked Democratic efforts to subpoena the State Department interpreter who translated for Trump during his closed-door meeting with Putin. The Republican rank-and-file remain largely loyal to Trump and are not inclined to incur his wrath ahead of midterm elections in November.

The Post's Karen Tumulty argued that last week's performance was Trump's worst moment since a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville last year — which Trump only belatedly condemned after suggesting some white supremacists were "very fine people." The unavoidable political lesson from that episode was that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, coddling neo-fascism is hardly a disqualifying act. The same may now be said about coddling the strongman in Moscow.

Trump, meanwhile, left Helsinki convinced that the whole affair had gone down well. “The president felt he had shown strength, an impression buoyed by two friendly interviews he did with Fox News Channel personalities before boarding Air Force One to return home from the Nordic capital,” my colleagues reported.

They added that Trump also “waxed on about his impressions of Putin up close — strong, smart and cunning, in Trump’s assessment — and told associates that he viewed the Russian as a formidable adversary with whom he relishes interactions.”

For Trump’s critics, the fear is that Putin enjoys these interactions, too, but not for the same reasons.

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