The press conference in Helsinki on Monday night following the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may have been more significant than their actual talks. The summit between the two leaders produced a new low point in the Trump presidency, which could turn out to be a turning point as well.
With the exception of Trump’s die-hard fans, America will find it hard to forgive a president who stood by an authoritarian rival like Vladimir Putin, opted to defend rather than castigate him and bashed his own country instead. Even if Trump doesn’t owe Putin a thing, he looked and sounded, to all intents and purposes, like his lackey, or like his puppet, as Hillary Clinton foresaw.
The person responsible for Trump’s fiasco is former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Over the weekend, Special Counsel Mueller laid a time bomb at Trump’s feet, which exploded on Monday in the president’s face. On Friday, Mueller’s office published the extraordinarily detailed indictments against 12 officers and agents of Russia’s military intelligence wing known as GRU, which detailed their extensive and elaborate campaign to undermine Clinton’s candidacy in the 2016 elections, and to bolster Trump’s.
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The indictment was augmented by statements made by a Trump-appointee, Republican Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, who said that the Russian campaign was an ongoing assault on U.S. democracy and that the warning lights “are blinking red again,” just as they did on the eve of the September 11 terrorist attacks. These developments spurred U.S. journalists in Helsinki to confront Trump about the Russia investigation, but faced with the unequivocal findings of his own intelligence and legal officials, Trump preferred to kowtow to Putin and to effectively clear him of wrongdoing.
The same inflated ego that led Trump to declare that the bad relations between Russia “changed as about four hours ago,” just because his eminence met with the Russian leader, is also responsible for his inability to respond rationally to the allegations of Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, which are accepted today by Democrats and many Republicans as well. Even if Trump did not participate in, and had no knowledge of, the Russian intervention on his behalf, his compulsive obsession with himself and his own needs prevents him from acknowledging the severity of the Russian operation or the dangers its still portends. His vain fear that his election will be delegitimized compels him to prefer Putin’s denials to the clear findings of his administration. He prefers to shame America in order to save his image from harm.
But Trump’s embarrassing performance didn’t start or end with his refusal to come to terms with the GRU plot, which was obviously authorized by Putin. Hours before arriving in Helsinki, Trump had the gall to tweet that bad relations with Russia were caused by the "foolishness and stupidity" of the U.S. In his tweets and at the press conference, Trump never mentioned Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, invasion and annexation of Crimea, support for the murderous regime of Bashar Assad or the Kremlin’s use of biological weapons on the soil of Great Britain, ostensibly one of America’s closest allies. He certainly wouldn’t mention Putin’s ongoing campaign of oppression and even liquidation of journalists, which Trump might even admire, given his adoption of Stalin’s favorite term “enemy of the state” to describe U.S. journalists.
Rather than protest or even mildly criticize such infractions, Trump preferred to lavish praise on Russia’s admittedly excellent hosting of the World Cup.
Only Israel, it seems, is exempt from Trump’s habitual lashing of allies. Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S. president on Monday night for his stance, even though he increasingly sparks resentment and suspicion among Trump’s critics. Putin made special mention of Trump’s concerns for Israel’s security, in the context of Syria, which he claimed to share.
A report in last week’s New Yorker, which did not receive the attention it merited in Israel because of the World Cup and tensions in Gaza, alleged that Israel pushed and was still pushing Trump to reach a “grand bargain” with Putin, by which the United States would drop sanctions imposed in the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea in exchange for decisive Russian steps to remove the Iranian presence from Syria. The story paints Israel as pushing Trump to get closer to Putin and as prodding him to reach a deal that would benefit Israel’s security but deal another harsh blow to Washington’s ties with Europe. Worse, the report supplies a possible Israeli motive for conspiracy theorists who believe Jerusalem was a partner in Moscow’s efforts to undermine Clinton and get Trump elected.
In normal times, one could wholeheartedly endorse Trump’s words at the photo-op that preceded his meeting with Putin, by which good relations between Washington and Moscow are a good rather than a bad thing, that their nuclear arsenals are a negative rather than a positive force and that the entire world would like to see the two countries get along better. In normal times, a summit between American and Russian leaders would give rise to great expectations rather than suspicion and apprehension, to which Trump’s performance at the press conference added no small measure of revulsion.
But given that Trump is the president, these are not normal times. Thus, the summit in Helsinki is not one more in a long line of top-level meetings between leaders of the two countries, some of which ended in historic breakthroughs and others in dangerous crises. In previous summits, Russian leaders, and Soviet before them, were challenged by American presidents whose motives, even if the presidents were inexperienced or less talented, were never suspect.
The one in Helsinki, however, was a summit interrupted: Russia was represented by a determined and wily leader who will use any means at his disposal to restore Russia to its days of glory, while the United States was represented by a superficial and impetuous president who seemed to be doing his best to help his counterpart achieve his goals. The two-hour, one-on-one meeting between the two leaders only enhanced suspicion and dread.
After all, Trump came to Helsinki after sowing dissent and division among America’s European allies, a critical foundation in Western defense against Russia. He insulted Germany, enraged Britain, berated NATO and called the European Union a “foe” while insisting that Russia was only a “competitor,” and only in the good sense of the word. Hours before meeting Putin, Trump accused the United States of wrecking relations between the two countries, as if he were a separate entity from the country he leads. Israelis can just imagine how the earth would shake beneath their feet if, on the eve of meeting Mahmoud Abbas, for example, their prime minister blamed Israel for bad relations with the Palestinians and the lack of a peace process, while absolving his interlocutors of any responsibility whatsoever.
Trump’s conduct in Helsinki followed the same pattern as his meeting last month in Singapore with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un. He brought Kim out of international isolation, praised his personality and performance, voluntarily and unilaterally conceded joint military exercises with South Korea and proclaimed, à la Neville Chamberlain and “peace for our time,” that Pyongyang’s nuclear threat had been removed. Similarly, Trump brought Putin back into the international fold without demanding or getting anything in return, praised him as a visionary leader and hinted at upcoming breakthroughs, which could soon turn out, like with North Korea, to be nothing more than pipe dreams.
The confusion is compounded by the fact that Trump’s declarations and polices often seem to contradict the decisions being made by his own administration. Trump trashes Europe and lavishes praise on Putin while his administration reassures the Europeans and ratchets up sanctions against Russia.
Those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand can console themselves with the Arabic saying “the dogs bark but the caravan passes,” meaning that what the administration does is more important than what the president says. But this consolation underplays the critical importance of the president’s posture, especially in the days of Twitter and social media. It also ignores the fact that the United States is increasingly perceived as being dysfunctional, while Russia and other rivals are like tight-run ships in which the captain’s commands are never questioned.
Details of the actual talks between Trump and Putin will probably emerge over the next few days. Because they talked in private, with no advisers present, the two leaders will be able to control the publications and the spin that will accompany them. Europe will no doubt be anxious to learn details about the agreements that may have been reached, but America will most likely focus on Trump’s shameful public appearance and try to assess how much damage he sustained, and whether it is irreversible.
Democrats will certainly savage the president, and they may be joined by an increasing number of Republicans who will finally confront their party’s leader. On the other hand, this is an appropriate time to remember Trump’s prophetic words at the height of the 2016 campaign, when he asserted that his voters would continue to support him even if he decided to shoot someone while walking down Fifth Avenue. We’ll soon see whether they will also be able to forgive him for hazing America with Putin standing by his side, an act described by former CIA Director John Brennan on Monday night as nothing less than treasonous.