HELSINKI — President Trump has long expressed a desire to have a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, arguing it would benefit the United States and the world.
On Monday, he did everything he could to make that happen.
Trump’s friendly words toward Putin here during their one-day summit ran from the relatively harmless — effusively praising Putin for his stewardship of the just-concluded World Cup — to the stunning: Sympathizing with the Russian leader’s denial that the Kremlin had tried to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during a joint news conference at the presidential palace against a backdrop of U.S. and Russian flags.
Throughout his presidency — and during the raucous, seven-day swing throughout Europe that concludes Monday — Trump has upended long-standing relationships with allies and dismissed the importance of multinational alliances while embracing strongmen who had traditionally been adversaries of the United States.
But his defense of Putin here in Helsinki — the setting for previous climactic summits between the United States and Russia — was the most striking example yet of his desire to embrace the Russian autocrat despite warnings from his own government and lawmakers in both parties that Putin should be viewed as an adversary not a friend.
“This is worse than anything that I could’ve imagined,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under the Obama administration. “He was literally taking the side of the Russian government against the American government, the American people and the American democracy.”
Trump started off the day making clear his approach to Putin at their summit would be anything but adversarial.
Fresh off a weekend golfing expedition at his resort in Turnberry, Scotland, Trump began rattling off tweets in the morning that echoed Putin’s critique that the United States deserves plenty of the blame for tensions between the two countries.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted shortly after 9 a.m. in Helsinki.
It didn’t take long for the Twitter account for Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs to respond: “We agree.”
Then, the waiting commenced.
The notoriously tardy Putin strolled in fashionably late into Helsinki, arriving at this picturesque seaside European capital just 20 minutes before his talks with Trump were slated to begin.
Trump countered by arriving at the Finnish presidential palace an hour behind schedule — not allowing himself to be one-upped by Putin, at least on unpunctuality.
If there were any tensions over the delay, it didn’t show.
The two men strode in front of cameras and kicked off their one-on-one meeting at 2:10 p.m. inside the palace’s elaborate Gothic Hall, replete with a grand chandelier. A stiff Trump and Putin stood for a moment to pose for photos, with Trump towering over Putin, who stands at 5 feet, 7 inches.
But the two men seemed to quickly loosen up once they sat down, with Trump leaning forward in his wooden chair during the brief opening remarks, while Putin slouched casually in his. (former president Barack Obama once remarked that Putin appears “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”)
Putin went first, keeping his comments concise and matter-of-fact, focused on the need to discuss U.S.-Russian relations in depth and in detail.
“Of course, the time has come that we speak extensively about our bilateral relations and various problem points around the world,” Putin said through an interpreter. “There are enough of them that we ought to pay attention to them.”
Trump countered with praise for Putin.
“Well, first of all Mr. President, I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup, one of the best ever from what everybody tells me,” Trump began.
Trump referenced their “mutual friend,” Chinese President Xi Jinping, and left election interference off the list of topics to be discussed. He confidently predicted that the two “will end up having an extraordinary relationship” and initiated a brief but firm handshake.
The two leaders then met with only their translators, emerging two hours later at a meeting with expanded group of advisers where Trump made clear he was happy with the direction of the day following his tête-à-tête with Putin.
“I think it’s a good start,” Trump told the assembled press. “A very, very good start for everybody.”
About an hour and a half later the two leaders entered a palace ballroom with Trump declaring that their meeting went “very well” and confident the U.S.-Russia relationship, which he described as having “never been worse than it is now” entering the summit, was now on firmer ground.
“That changed as of about four hours ago,” he said. “I really believe that.”
In response to the first question from the press, Trump sought to clear up that he doesn’t consider Putin an adversary.
“Well, actually I called him a competitor. And a good competitor he is. And I think the word ‘competitor’ is a compliment,” he said.
Pressed by the next reporter on whether he holds Russia “at all” responsible for the deterioration of the relationship between the two countries, Trump said he did but emphasized both sides are at fault.
“I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish,” he said. “We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame.”
When the reporter asked Putin why Americans should believe his denials about Russia interfering in the 2016 election, Trump jumped in to answer. He decried the issue as the result of sour grapes by Democrats upset they lost the election and stressed, as he often does, that his campaign had nothing to do with any Russians.
“There was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign,” he said, adding “we ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.”
A short time later, Putin segued from a question about the war in Syria to present Trump with a gift.
“And speaking about the — having the ball in our court in Syria, President Trump has just mentioned that we’ve successfully completed the World Football Cup,” Putin said. “Speaking of the football actually, Mr. President, I’ll give this ball to you and now the ball is in your court. All the more that the United States will host the World Cup in 2026.”
Trump thanked him, said he would give it to his son and tossed the soccer ball to his wife Melania. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) later said Trump should scour the ball to check whether it was bugged. The Russian media reported that Trump offered up a present of his own to Putin: the jersey of Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, who is Russian.
Asked once again about the Russian investigation, Trump grew testier, declining to say whether he sides with the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded Russia did meddle in the election.
“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” he said referring the director of national intelligence. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
He then said Putin had made “an incredible offer” to have his government work with Justice Department investigators who last week indicted a dozen Russian intelligence officials, charging them with hacking Democratic emails.
“I think that’s an incredible offer. OK?,” he said.
Putin said it was the way to handle the issue, so long as Russian officials would be given access to “persons of interest” who Moscow believes “have something to do with the intelligence services.”
The Russian president then brushed off a question about whether his government had any compromising information on Trump or his family.
“Well, it’s difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this,” he said. “Well, please, just disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”
“It would have been out long ago,” he said, adding again that he views the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.”
With that, the roughly 45 minute news conference ended and the criticism back home began to roll in.
Lawmakers in both parties shot out releases, saying they believe the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election and urged Trump not to believe Putin’s denials.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a stinging rebuke.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he said in a statement.
More than two hours after Air Force One lifted off from Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, Trump responded to his critics.
“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’” Trump tweeted midair. “However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”