WASHINGTON — In the case of United States versus Russia, it was as if President Trump had been hired to act as the defense attorney for President Putin.
Every time the topic of whether Russia meddled in the 2016 election arose — a conclusion that has been confirmed by US intelligence agencies, congressional committees, and federal prosecutors — Trump leapt to the defense of the Russian president during Monday’s joint news conference with Vladimir Putin. The US president cast blame on the FBI. He said the Obama administration was to blame. And what about those Hillary Clinton e-mails?
The 45-minute press conference provided the capstone on a foreign trip that remakes American foreign policy, with the European Union now dubbed by Trump as a foe and Russia as a friend. Until Monday, Russia was a chief American adversary.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Trump said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”
When pressed — several times by American reporters — Trump cast doubt on conclusions from American intelligence agencies and suggested that he believed the words of the former KGB agent, Putin, instead. He also insisted that he saw no reason why Putin — who said on Monday that Trump was his preferred candidate in 2016 — would have wanted to influence the US election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
He criticized special counsel Robert Mueller (“I think the probe has been a disaster for our country. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe”), boasted about his electoral victory (“We won that race. And it’s a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it”), and tried to shift the focus back to Hillary Clinton.
“What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails?” he said, responding to a question on whether he believes Putin over his own intelligence agencies. “33,000 e-mails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.”
Putin arrived late to their meeting in Helsinki, making Trump wait for him. During the press conference, Putin spoke first, and the first question went to a Russian reporter. It was clear whose terms this stagecraft was on.
“I think we can call it a success,” Putin said of their summit.
It also comes less than four months before the midterm elections, sending a message that there is little price to be paid by any foreign government that interferes with the United States election — as long as its leaders publicly deny they did so.
Dan Coats, the Trump administration’s director of national intelligence, warned on Friday of imminent Russian cyberattacks, saying “the warning lights are blinking red again.” He repeated that assertion again Monday, saying Russia is engaged in “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Trump’s performance in Helsinki was roundly denounced. Longtime critics went so far as to say it amounted to treason. Those who often attempt to defend Trump or justify his comments, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, called on the president to take a tougher stance with Russia.
“This is shameful,” said Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican and one of the few in Trump’s party who is often willing to criticize him.
Mitt Romney, who is running for US Senate in Utah, called Trump’s comments “disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles.”
“The president’s comments made us look, like a nation, more like a push-over,” said Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “I did not think this was a good moment for our country.”
The most excoriating words came from Senator John McCain, who said it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and “a pathetic rout,” and that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” said McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who has had a contentious relationship with Trump. “But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
The moment was reminiscent of one that took place some 11 months ago when Trump was reluctant to denounce the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, saying “both sides” were to blame for the violence that day that left an antiracism protester dead.
Trump even mimicked that language on Monday, saying of Russian meddling: “I hold both countries responsible. I think we’re all to blame.”
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Republicans denounced Trump initially but there was little long-term consequence for the president. The question now is whether the impact is different in dealing with a foreign adversary.
Putin offered to have Russian authorities assist with Mueller’s investigation, by allowing him to be present in Russia for questioning of the 12 Russian agents who were indicted on Friday on allegations they hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign in an effort to influence the 2016 election. Rather than stand up for American investigatory independence, Trump hailed Putin’s offer — to have Russians interview Russians, to exonerate Russians — as a gracious one.
“What he did is an incredible offer,” Trump said. “He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK?”
As if on cue, the Department of Justice on Monday afternoon, a few hours after the Trump-Putin press conference, announced that a Russian national was arrested on Sunday and charged with acting as a Russian agent in the United States and attempting to infiltrate organizations with influence over American politics.
A lingering question is why Trump is so effusive in his praise for Putin. Some have suggested it is because Russia has some compromising information on Trump.
“His behavior is so inexplicable,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said. “If that’s not the explanation — that Putin has something on him — what is it? What could it possibly be?”
Putin chuckled at the idea Russia had collected any compromising material on Trump.
“It’s difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this,” Putin said. “Please, just disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”
Trump addressed the issue by saying that if such material existed, it would have been released by now. Then, Trump turned his attention to the testimony last week of an FBI agent who, while investigating Trump and Clinton, had sent text messages disparaging Trump.
“If anybody watched Peter Strzok testify over the last couple of days — and I was in Brussels watching it — it was a disgrace to the FBI, it was a disgrace to our country, and you would say that was a total witch hunt.”
“Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.”
With that, he waved, shook Putin’s hand, and left to fly back to the United States.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.