US President Donald Trump began his swing through Europe by insulting Germany, one of the top US allies, and threatening the fabric of the NATO alliance. Next, he criticized the United Kingdom’s prime minister, nearly sending her already-vulnerable government teetering over the brink.
So it almost made sense that Trump would cap off his European swing by making nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin and challenging the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Trump’s comments came during a news conference in which a US reporter asked Trump whether he would denounce Russian interference and warn Putin “never to do it again.”
The US President, who had just spent about two hours alone with Putin, did anything but. Instead he offered up the striking image of a US president refusing to back his intelligence agencies over the word of the Russian dictator standing beside him. And unleashed a deluge of criticism.
Here are five takeaways from the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit:
Defending his election takes precedence
Trump has consistently viewed the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling as a blight on his election – repeatedly characterizing it and the subsequent investigation stemming from the Russian interference as an effort to delegitimize his victory.
When he was presented with the choice of believing Putin’s most recent and adamant denials or an assessment that he feels undermines his legitimacy as President, the choice to Trump was clear: He would prioritize the latter.
The President’s own advisers and political allies in Congress have repeatedly attempted to draw a line for Trump between the US intelligence assessment and the legitimacy of his victory. But the politicking by certain Democrats on the matter seems to have made the two inextricable in Trump’s mind.
But how will Trump’s reflexive defensiveness about the allegations of collusion and notion that Russia may have helped his candidacy play long term? On Monday, it appeared to only fuel critics’ suspicions of his relationship with Moscow.
The President’s critics warned that a one-on-one meeting between Trump and his Russian counterpart would be disastrous. Trump, they said, would be outmaneuvered by the former KGB agent.
The US President responded with typical bravado, saying he believed his meeting with Putin might be “the easiest of them all” during his European venture.
But beyond taking Putin at face value over his denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the US President also concluded that Putin’s offer for Russian law enforcement to interrogate the Russian agents indicted by the US Justice Department was not only genuinely helpful, but “incredible.” Putin also said he would allow US officials to be present, as long as Russian officials could do the same in the US.
The offer amounted to allowing a defendant to oversee his own interrogation – something US officials accompanying Trump in Helsinki would have likely immediately pushed back on had they been present for his solo meeting.
But Trump lapped it up.
“He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people,” Trump said at the news conference. “I think that’s an incredible offer, OK?”
Trump’s high-risk strategy flops
Trump had been repeatedly advised against holding a grand summit with his Russian counterpart and against meeting alone with Putin.
But the US President spurned the warnings, confident that he could turn the tide of the US and Russia’s worsening relationship through the power of his personal diplomacy. While he knew his critics would criticize the summit no matter what, he believed he could emerge from it with tangible progress.
Instead, it became just the latest instance of Trump’s high-risk, high-reward strategy backfiring. Trump drew criticism not only from Democrats but also from a range of Republicans, including GOP lawmakers who typically take pains to avoid criticizing him.
And he handed his critics the most damaging ammunition yet in making their case that he is somehow compromised by Russia – or at a minimum insufficiently critical of the Russian leader and his efforts to undermine American democracy. That ammunition will be the sound and the images of Trump refusing an opportunity to condemn Putin for the election interference while standing alongside a confident-looking Russian leader.
Stunning – but not surprising.
Trump’s comments were a stunning statement for a US President to make, particularly while standing alongside one of the US’ primary antagonists. And they reverberated around Washington as such.
But his comments only confirmed his views of the US intelligence assessment, the special counsel’s investigation and his approach to Russia as a whole.
In the days leading up to his meeting with Putin, Trump made clear he would not blame Putin’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in Western elections or use of a nerve agent on UK soil for the souring of US-Russia relations.
Instead, as he indicated during a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May and then later in a tweet Monday morning, he blamed US policies and the investigation into the Russian election interference.
Beyond that, Trump has never offered the kind of full-throated support of the US intelligence community assessment that would normally be expected of a US president. And when the US expelled 60 Russian officials from the US, Trump later complained to his aides that the number was too high – thinking he was merely matching expulsions from individual European counterparts.
What about the issues?
Trump hailed his meeting with Putin as “deeply productive,” but the two leaders emerged from their meetings on Monday with little to show with regard to advancing solutions on major global issues.
Trump made clear in recent days that he was aiming to advance discussions on a new nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia, but the two presidents emerged without even the promise of specific follow-up meetings on the issue.
On Syria – another key point of discussion – Trump only signaled that the US, Russia and Israel would be working on a deal regarding Syria. But he offered few specifics.
Instead, it was Putin who appeared to emerge with the biggest deliverable from the summit: continuing to exploit political divisions in the US and sowing turmoil in Washington.