This week’s summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, between the president and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was widely judged to be a diplomatic setback for President Trump because he appeared to accept assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia had not inter-fered in the 2016 US presidential election, contradicting the collective conclusion of US intel-ligence agencies. Trump sought to walk the comments back on Tuesday, after 24 hours of mer-ciless attacks.
Trump’s bashing of US intelligence agencies and seeming to believe Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial that Russia “assaulted America’s democracy” was seen as an unforced error and a missed opportunity for him to stand up to Putin’s aggressive policies and bad be-havior. The press conference generated an outpouring of criticism from Trump’s foes and friends, for allegedly revealing weakness and uncertainty in a one-on-one confrontation with an adversary who respects only strength and resolve.
The turning point of the summit came during a 46-minute joint news conference inside the Finnish presidential palace, when Trump declined to challenge Putin’s claim that the Russian government did not try to sabotage the election. This came only 72 hours after the Justice De-partment indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking and releasing emails which exposed efforts by Democrat party officials to help Hillary Clinton win the presidential nomination.
Instead of publicly challenging Putin with the evidence in the indictment of Russian election meddling, Trump chose to repeat his criticism of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investi-gation into allegations that his campaign colluded with the Russians. Trump condemned the ongoing Mueller probe as “a disaster for our country” and “a total witch hunt.” Trump believes it is important that people realize that he won the election fair and square. He beat Clinton be-cause he was a better candidate, who worked harder and more effectively. The left has been try-ing ever since election day to undermine his victory and legitimacy and he fights back at every opportunity, including this one in Helsinki.
The news conference followed a two-hour private meeting between the two leaders, joined only by interpreters, at which Trump reportedly stood his diplomatic ground. He refused to loosen the sanctions which he has imposed on Russia in retaliation for its belligerent behavior and hostility to US interests around the world. Trump recently met with the leaders of NATO allies, urging them to increase their contributions to strengthen their defenses against Russia’s grow-ing military threat to the countries of Eastern Europe.
Every president since Eisenhower has been trying to have good relations with the Soviet leader, for some reason it hasn’t worked out. Trump sees a benefit in establishing a relationship with Putin so they can work together to avert war and advance peace in places such as Syria, while curtailing the power of Iran.
WHAT THEY DISCUSSED
At the news conference, Trump said that the US would be stepping up its competition with Rus-sia as a source of liquified natural gas to meet the energy needs of Germany and the rest of Eu-rope. Trump also said that he and Putin discussed the need to extend the nuclear arms agree-ment between the US and Russia, stabilize the situation in the Middle East, and address con-cerns about Iran’s growing presence in Syria along Israel’s northern border.
Trump was asked about a tweet he had issued before meeting with Putin that morning in which he said, “It’s US foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in US relations with Russia.” He responded by saying, “I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago,” and then mentioned the special counsel’s probe into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign as another issue which has kept the two countries apart.
Both Putin and Trump suggested that the summit had enabled them to turn the page and get a fresh start on the US-Russia relationship. “The Cold War is a thing of the past,” Putin said, add-ing that he and Trump spoke “in a frank and businesslike atmosphere.”
A BUGGED SOCCER BALL?
As a symbolic gesture of good will, Putin, who hosted the World Cup soccer tournament that concluded in Moscow last week, handed Trump a soccer ball. “Now the ball is in your court,” Putin said, playfully. Trump accepted the ball and tossed it to his wife, who was sitting in the front row at the news conference, to give to their son, Barron, 12.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has always been deeply suspicious of Putin’s inten-tions, later warned the president, in a tweet, “If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listen-ing devices and never allow it in the White House.”
Trump’s problems began when AP reporter Jonathan Lemire asked him whether he believed the conclusion of the US intelligence community that Russia interfered with the 2016 election and then challenged Trump to warn Putin, with the world watching, never to do it again. Trump acknowledged that his Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and others had told him that Russia was guilty of interfering with the 2016 election but said that he could not reject Putin’s assurances that it was not Russia.
Instead of sending a clear public signal to Putin that the US would not tolerate such meddling, Trump felt the need to defend his 2016 electoral victory over Mrs. Clinton against the implica-tion that it was partially due to Russian interference. He raised once again the questions about the dishonesty of the Democrats in the 2016 campaign and Mrs. Clinton’s mishandling of her emails. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” Trump asked. “Thirty-three thousand emails 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 emails.”
TRUMP LOOKED WEAK
In an apparent effort to avoid insulting Putin by rejecting his denials, Trump failed to express confidence in the conclusions of his own intelligence officials that the Russians had meddled in the 2016 election. Trump’s critics blasted him for failing to endorse the accusation, saying that by doing so he sent a signal of weakness in the face of Putin’s bald-faced declaration that, “the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election process.”
Putin cleverly added fuel to the suspicions of Trump’s enemies by saying that he wanted Trump to defeat Clinton “because he talked about normalizing relations” between Russia and the Unit-ed States. When asked whether the Russian government had compromising information on Trump or his family members, Putin avoided giving a direct answer, saying instead, “It’s hard to imagine greater nonsense. Please throw this junk out of your head.”
Trump’s failure to defend the official US government position on what had happened during the 2016 election was interpreted as a demoralizing vote of no confidence by the president in the US national security establishment. Even Republican supporters saw it as a serious mistake which Trump would have to quickly correct.
FEEDING FRENZY OF CRITICISM
As Trump left Helsinki aboard Air Force One to fly back to Washington DC, a wave of criti-cism swept through the mainstream media. Trump’s most outspoken critics, such as Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan, called for his impeachment. “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemean-ors,’” Brennan wrote on Twitter. He called Trump’s behavior “nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
Other Trump opponents who had opposed the Helsinki summit and warned that Trump was not properly prepared to meet Putin one-on-one pointed to his statements at the Helsinki press con-ference as proof of their conviction that he is unfit to be president.
As he monitored the hostile reaction aboard Air Force One, Trump sought to explain in a tweet why he failed to give his full support to the conclusions of his intelligence services. “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’” he wrote. “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!”
His supporters quickly agreed that this was the answer that Trump should have given at the press conference. However, his failure to do so turned the Helsinki summit into a missed op-portunity and a serious setback to Trump’s reputation as a competent national leader, by expos-ing the vulnerabilities of his volatile personality.
US INTELLIGENCE CHIEF STAYS AT HIS POST
The most dignified response to the fiasco in Helsinki came from Trump’s intelligence chief, Dan Coats, whose findings on Russian interference the president had explicitly rejected. Coats would have been justified in submitting his resignation. Instead, he quietly re-affirmed his con-clusions and stood by his post, by issuing this statement: “The role of the Intelligence Commu-nity is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy. We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Trump’s misstep in Helsinki alarmed former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. “President Trump must clarify his state-ments in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Gingrich said on Twitter. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
The harshest Republican criticism came from Senator John McCain, no fan of Trump, who is-sued a scathing statement from his home in Arizona, where he has been confined in recent months battling terminal brain cancer.
“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout — as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience,” McCain, wrote. “But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems de-termined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.”
GOP LEADERS KEEP THEIR DISTANCE
GOP congressional leaders in Washington carefully distanced themselves from Trump’s state-ments in Helsinki. House Speaker Paul Ryan criticism of Trump’s was very pointed. “The pres-ident must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s terse reaction had less of an edge. During an inter-view in the Capitol, he said, “The Russians are not our friends. I’ve said that repeatedly, I say it again today. And I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced.” McConnell then refused to answer questions from reporters.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, suggested that Trump had become confused. “In the president’s mind, I think he’s conflating different things — the med-dling and the collusion allegations for which there does not appear to be any evidence,” Cornyn said.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he “did not think this was a good moment for our country,” but added that it was a very good moment for Mr. Putin.
“It was almost an approval, if you will, a public approval by the greatest nation on earth to-wards him,” Corker said. “I would guess he’s having caviar right now.”
A number of Republican senators who have broken with Trump in the past offered scathing re-views of his performance in Helsinki. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday, “Everyone in this body should be disgusted by what happened in Helsinki to-day.”
Trump hater Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said, “I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian president and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.”
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said, “Sadly, President Trump did not defend America to the Rus-sian president, and for the world to see. Instead, what I saw today was not ‘America First,’ it was simply a sad diminishment of our great nation.”
RAND PAUL AND MIKE PENCE STICK WITH TRUMP
One of the most prominent Republican to come to the defense of Trump’s performance in Hel-sinki was Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has also called for a thorough re-evaluation of America’s traditional foreign policy positions. He said, “I think it’s a good idea to have engagement [with the Russians], and I guess I don’t quite understand all of the people who have gone completely deranged criticizing the president.”
Vice President Mike Pence also sought to allay concerns about what Trump said in Helsinki, “The truth is, over the last week, the world saw once again that President Donald Trump stands without apology as leader of the free world. . . What the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first,” Pence said during an event in Washington DC at the Commerce Department.
Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, the former chairman of the House Home-land Security Committee, was sympathetic with Trump’s motives, but faulted his execution. “I understand in the bigger picture the president genuinely feels that he can establish better rela-tions with Russia the way Nixon did with China,” King said, “but the nuance eludes him.”
However, King was skeptical of a proposal which Putin made to Trump to send some of special counsel Robert Mueller’s staff to Russia to conduct a joint investigation of the 2016 election hackers. King said, “It would be like bringing ISIS into a joint terrorism task force.”
TRUMP’S STYLE OF FOREIGN POLICY
Many Republicans have been uneasy about Trump’s often stated desire to improve US relations with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, starting from the earliest days of his presidential campaign in the summer of 2015. Many had believed that once he was in office, surrounded by veteran national security experts, Trump would adopt a more skeptical attitude towards Russia. But Trump confounded those expectations as he continued to seek a better personal relationship with Putin, while ignoring the consensus of the intelligence agencies that Putin was behind a serious Russian effort to influence the 2016 election and is likely to try to do it again in future elections.
When he was running for president in 2016, Trump called for a new kind of US foreign policy, not tied to the post-World War II vision of the US being responsible for maintaining peace and the existing international order, often at its own expense. Trump began to demand that NATO and other US allies around the world shoulder the full financial burden of their defense, or face a cutoff in US support.
Similarly, Trump has been anxious to change the hostile relationship with traditional US adver-saries such as North Korea and Russia, and he is willing to ignore their past bad behavior if there is any real hope for improvement. Trump is well aware of Vladimir Putin’s history, just as he was aware of the history of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. But suspicion of Russia’s motives is much more deeply ingrained in the American foreign policy establishment, defined by the Cold War era which lasted for more than forty years, especially after Russia’s meddling was confirmed by the findings of the U.S. intelligence community. That is why the negative reaction to Trump’s outreach to Putin in Helsinki was far stronger than the criticism of the out-come of his recent summit in Singapore with the North Korean leader.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SUMMIT
These were not like the traditional summits of the Cold War years, which were the culmination of years of painstaking diplomatic negotiations between ideological adversaries. Trump’s summits have a different goal. He sees them as opportunities to establish personal relationships with the leaders of former US adversaries. Relying on his negotiating skills, Trump believes he can gradually transform them into potential partners in economic growth. He understands that he has to be willing to turn the page on past hostilities and suspicions. But the critics of his for-eign policy approach are still wedded to a Cold War, internationalist foreign policy approach. They are opposed to and fearful of Trump’s summits because they see them as ill-prepared meetings with untrustworthy adversaries, not as hopeful approaches to potential future partners.
Trump has also rejected the internationalist approach which sublimated America’s national in-terests to Obama’s utopian liberal vision of a new world order governed by an oligarchy of elites who run huge government bureaucracies like the European Union.
Trump’s international vision is also embodied in his concept of how he intends to “Make America Great Again.” It foresees an enlightened nationalism in a free market world in which countries are free to pursue their own destinies and definitions of success, either in peaceful cooperation or independently.
CRITICISM FROM FOX NEWS
Even Trump’s supporters in the conservative media may have been misled by Trump’s com-ments in Helsinki because their own foreign policy concepts are still governed by Cold War-era thinking. Many of the usually Trump-friendly reporters and analysts at Fox News also ex-pressed their concerns about what Trump said in the Helsinki news conference, except they did not project the same sense of alarm and crisis which characterized the reporting by more liberal news outlets.
Fox Business Network host Neil Cavuto, who is not a Trump fan, offered a gut reaction to Trump’s statements in Helsinki. He called them “disgusting,” adding that Trump was “essen-tially letting the guy get away with this, not even offering a mild criticism. . . I’m sorry, it’s the only way I feel. It’s not a right or left thing to me, it’s just wrong.”
The Fox News reporting did explain that Trump did not want to start a public confrontation with Putin at the Helsinki press conference because he was trying to lay the groundwork for meaningful diplomatic negotiations, but Fox commentator Abby Huntsman, the daughter of US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, felt that Trump had gone too far in that effort. She tweet-ed, “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”
Fox’s Lisa Kennedy Montgomery said she doubted that Trump believed Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but added that she “would like to see the president be more forceful.”
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh had a different take on Trump’s answers to report-ers’ questions in Helsinki. Limbaugh said that Trump believed the questions were intended to trick him into admitting that the Russians had ultimately been responsible for his 2016 elec-toral victory, so Trump’s answers were focused primarily on discrediting the concept.
MAINSTREAM MEDIA DISTORTION
The criticism of Trump’s performance in Helsinki from the mainstream media had been ex-pected. The White House learned that lesson from Trump’s summit in Singapore with the lead-er of North Korea. It proved that no matter how successful Trump may be, his critics will al-ways find ways to minimize his accomplishments. In the case of the Helsinki summit, the me-dia quickly exploited Trump’s careless answer to a reporter’s question to suggest that Trump was rejecting the entire US national security establishment in order to whitewash the failed at-tempt of a Russian dictator to sabotage an American election.
Trump’s answer was a mistake. It generated a misleading perception, but it did not reflect a change of policy or substance. The sanctions punishing Russia remain in place, and Trump’s policies committed to strengthening NATO allies and the US national defense against the threat of Russian aggression are stronger than ever. The dire interpretations which it generated from Trump’s political enemies were equally and intentionally misleading.
SCHUMER AND PELOSI REVIVE OLD SUSPICIONS
One of the first and most extreme responses to Trump’s statements came from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democrat from New York. He found it suspicious that, “The one person he [Trump] hasn’t blamed is the person he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with this morn-ing, Vladimir Putin.”
Schumer then revived one of the unverified accusations from the notorious Steele dossier. He declared, “In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin.
“A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: What could possibly cause Pres-ident Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Ameri-cans will continue to wonder. The only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump,” Schumer speculated.
House Democrat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made similar accusations. “Every single day, I find myself asking: what do the Russians have on Donald Trump personally, financially and politically? The answer to that question is that is the only thing that explains his behavior and his refusal to stand up to Putin,” Pelosi tweeted.
Later Monday, in a wide-ranging 30-minute interview with Fox News reporter Chris Wallace, Putin refused to accept a copy of the indictment last week by the Mueller team of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrat computers during the 2016 cam-paign.
“Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of Americans?” Putin asked rhetorical-ly. “This is utterly ridiculous.”
Putin went on to reject the Mueller probe as one of “the internal political games of the United States. Don’t make the relationship between Russia and the United States – don’t hold it hos-tage of this internal political struggle. It’s nothing to be proud of for American democracy, to use such dirty methods in the political rivalry.”
After rejecting the notion that Russia had interfered in the election, Putin took a different tack. He suggested that the leaking of Democrat National Committee’s hacked emails in July 2016 was not harmful because their content was truthful.
“Was it some rigging of facts? Was it some forgery of facts? That’s the important point that I’m trying to make,” Putin said. “Was any false information planted? No. It wasn’t.”
Noting that the emails revealed an internal party plot to give the Democrat nomination to Hilla-ry Clinton, Putin suggested that, “an apology should be made to the public at large instead of looking for the party [who stole and revealed the emails].”
In the interview, Putin pushed back against suggestions that Russia may have compromising material about Trump, saying “it’s clear that we did nothing of that kind of against Mr. Trump. He added, “I don’t want to insult President Trump when I say this – and I may come [across] as rude – but before he announced that he will run for [the] presidency, he was of no interest for us.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted his thanks to Rand Paul for standing by him. He boasted that he had a great meeting with NATO leaders last week, and “I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way. The Fake News is going crazy.”
Later in the day, Trump reacted to the storm of media criticism of his comments which rejected the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered with the 2016 election in light of Putin’s denial. A number of Republicans had strongly urged the White House to find a way to walk back that statement.
On Tuesday afternoon, before a meeting with congressional Republicans on another tax cut bill, Trump called in reporters to re-confirm his “Full faith and support for America’s intelligence agencies.”
Trump then stated, “While Russian’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the elec-tion, let me totally clear in saying, and I’ve said this many times, I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that meddling took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” He added, “There was no collusion at all.”
Trump said he was unaware that he had misspoken at a crucial point during his press confer-ence with Putin. Surprised at the volume of criticism his press conference comments had gen-erated, he said, “I came back and said ‘What is going on, what’s the big deal?’” It was only af-ter he reviewed the transcript and a video of the press conference did he “realize that there is a need for some clarification.”
Trump said his mistake was in the portion of his remarks where he said he didn’t “see any rea-son why Russia “would” be behind the election meddling when he meant to say he didn’t “see any reason why Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible for the meddling, reversing the meaning of his statement.
On Monday he said, “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said, referring to 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.”
On Tuesday, Trump said, “In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’” “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Rus-sia.’ Sort of a double negative,” Trump said. “So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
Trump then repeated that the “Russians attempted to interfere in our elections. We will do eve-rything in our power to prevent interference in the 2018 [midterm] elections. . . We will take strong action to secure election systems and the processes for 2018.”
Democrats and Trump haters weren’t satisfied, of course. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, immediately jumped on the president’s statement, saying Trump “tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday.”
“It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place,” said the tweet in Schumer’s name.
Rush Limbaugh said on Tuesday, “There has to be a reason for this delusional, out of control, deranged and yet unified reaction to Trump and Putin in the press conference yesterday. There has to be some explanation for it. This over-the-top, genuinely insane and delusional meltdown that is being experienced throughout all of official Washington, there has to be a reason for it. And I am here to tell you, it is not what they are telling you it is. It is not that they think Trump acted treasonously. It is not that they think Trump didn’t call Putin out. It is not that Trump did not defend his own intelligence people.
He answered his question, “He’s not supposed to have succeeded. He’s an outsider. He’s a dunce. He doesn’t know how to speak correctly. He doesn’t have the pedigree, the educational pedigree. He’s a mutt! He has no business winning this office. He has no business even running for it. He has no business outsmarting these people.”
Whether that is true or not, the president has a habit of doing the right thing but often saying the wrong thing, perhaps this will be a lesson he will not soon forget and will watch what he says and how he says it.
The wild reaction of the left also leaves much to be desired and was another of their many over-reaches which may end up hurting them as much what the president said hurt him.