Standing next to Vladimir Putin, after a meeting Putin had requested, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed the findings of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. He began by floating unfounded accusations that the FBI had ignored his opponent’s misdeeds. Then he proceeded to express his doubts. “All I can do is ask the question,” said Trump. “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I’ll say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Trump told the world he trusts the denial of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — the very man who did the deed! — over his own government’s intelligence. Trump can’t think of a reason why Putin would have interfered in the election. The fact that Russia has interfered in multiple elections, the fact its propaganda arm had broadcast its preference for Trump, the fact American intelligence concluded Russia intervened, that Robert Mueller has produced multiple indictments detailing evidence of this interference, all mean less to him than Putin’s say-so. Putin admitted at this press conference he wanted Trump to win.
My recent story argues that we have underestimated the possibility that the Russia scandal is much worse than it looks, that the depth and extent of the president’s covert ties to Russia might run deeper and longer than many people expect. Even for those of us harboring serious suspicions about this, Trump’s performance in Helsinki was stunning. I expected some artifice, some superficial gestures of Trumpian independence, perhaps some finger-wagging for show at Russia’s naughty behavior, and assurances it would not recur. What transpired instead was far worse, and far more blatant. Trump is engaged in an act of open betrayal against his own country.
In the run-up to the press conference, Trump made a series of staggering comments. He congratulated Putin for the brilliant success of hosting the World Cup, ignoring the corruption that enabled Russia to pull off this coup. Asked by a reporter to name America’s greatest foe, he named the European Union. Even more incredibly, he blamed hostility between the United States and Russia on the United States:
This tweet set the predicate for one of the most revealing questions at the press conference. “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you — what would you consider them — that they are responsible for?,” asked a reporter. In response to this, Trump did not mention any of the following: Russian encroachments on Georgia; Ukraine; the hacking of Democratic Party emails; repeated murder attempts on foreign soil, or the missile attack on Malaysian Airlines. Instead he insisted, “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.” He then started to denounce the Mueller probe as “a disaster for our country.”
In his characteristically trollish fashion, Putin offered to let American investigators interview some suspects in Russia in return for letting Russian investigators come to the United States to interview Bill Browder, a dissident Russian expatriot. Putin’s presumption either that Browder’s alleged financial crime (tax evasion) is equivalent to Russia’s theft of American emails, or that such a trade could somehow advance the cause of legitimate justice, is a sick joke.
Trump, incredibly, lavished praise upon this offer. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today, and what he did is an incredible offer,” he gushed. “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.” This is not an “incredible offer.” It is a transparent ploy to simultaneously undermine the Mueller probe while extending the tentacles of Putin’s murderous plutocracy onto American soil.
The display was so unsettling and over-the-top that even some of the most paranoid observers were left staggered. John Brennan, the former CIA director, called Trump “wholly in the pocket of Putin.” As I noted in my story, Brennan has previously said that Putin possesses some secret leverage over the president. It is very strange that it’s considered a “conspiracy theory” to think the CIA director, who had access to a wide array of counterintelligence sources, might know what he’s talking about.
Asked by a reporter if he holds any compromising information on Trump or his family, Putin gave a transparently disingenuous denial. “When Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was there,” he said. “I treat him with utmost respect, but back then when he was private person, a businessman, nobody informed me.” No Russia expert would give this any credence. Russian intelligence keeps close track of foreign visitors, and does not care a whit about their “privacy.” We don’t know whether Trump engaged in any behavior that could be used as blackmail leverage during his trip, but the idea that Russia would not have bothered to collect it is fanciful.
Possibly the most damning admission was one Trump made in his prepared remarks. Trump noted that he put his own standing at risk by accepting Putin’s offer of a meeting. “Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet,” he said.
For all Trump’s lies, here was one truth. It is why nobody in his administration except Trump wanted to attend the meeting at all. And it has been vindicated by the sour response his performance received from his usually-slavish partisan following back home. Yet Trump, a man of few core beliefs and a fanatical attachment to polling, his reelection standing, and how his daily events play on television, nonetheless plunged ahead with an event bound to harm all three. It is no undue paranoia to ask why.