President Donald J. Trump’s Monday’s press conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin has to stand as one of the most jaw-dropping moments in a presidency chock-a-block with troubling events. Standing next to Putin, Trump pointedly refused to accept the universal assessment of his intelligence agencies that Russia attempted to disrupt the 2016 election. Instead, the president engaged in a deflection detour before arriving at this stunning remark: “[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. 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.”
That supposed bafflement about motive came even though Putin had just acknowledged he had wanted Trump to win “because he was the one who wanted to normalize relations with Russia.”
Trump, of course, has a self-interested reason for creating doubt about Russian interference: Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the role Russia played in trying to disrupt the election — and whether the Trump team colluded with those efforts. Mueller’s investigation upped the ante on Friday by securing the indictments of 12 Russian intelligence operatives for their alleged efforts to hack into Democratic campaign organizations. Under their online avatar Guccifer 2.0, those operatives were in touch with at least one close Trump associate, probably Roger Stone. Armed with those indictments, Trump could have forcefully confronted Putin. Instead, he elevated Putin’s credibility to the level of US intelligence agencies. Senator John McCain called this what it was: “One of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
The message here will reverberate around the world. No matter what US intelligence agencies say about Russia and Putin, Trump won’t credit that information. Trump may be ready to forget the past — a past that includes the unlawful annexation of Crimea, war against Ukraine, and election meddling — and welcome Putin back into the community of respectable nations. But the past leaves a paper trail.
On Monday, American authorities arrested a Russian national and accused her of acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Maria Butina was accused of trying to “create a back-channel line of communication” between American and Russian officials and of attempting to infiltrate the National Rifle Association on Moscow’s behalf.
It’s now utterly apparent that Trump won’t push back hard against Russia unless forced by Congress. That body needs officially to disavow Trump’s remarks and demand a full transcript of any notes from the private-except-for-translators Trump-Putin meeting.
And it’s long past time for congressional Republican leaders to cease their efforts to discredit Mueller’s investigation. As became obvious again on Monday, it’s Mueller, not Trump, who is trying to ferret out the truth here, and Trump who’s trying to avoid it.