President Donald Trump’s performance at Monday’s press conference following his summit meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin was by most accounts disastrous. Trump failed to press Putin on one single point of policy, rattled off some right-wing conspiracy theories, and most disturbingly, declared that he believes the word of a former KGB agent over every U.S. intelligence agency regarding Russia’s interference in our elections. When presented with the ludicrous suggestion of inviting Russian intelligence to participate in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe of that interference, he called it “an incredible offer.”
That it was indeed, but not in the way he meant.
For all that Trump embarrassed himself and the United States before the world, however, he did not quite live up to fears that he would let Putin talk him into agreements or concessions that went against American interests or values. Primarily due to the institutional constraints of his office, Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky observes, Trump “will continue acting in ways that aren’t in Putin’s interests”:
He will keep trying to bludgeon and blackmail Europe into buying more expensive U.S. liquefied natural gas rather than cheaper fuel from the Russian pipeline. He will keep pushing sanctions on Iran, an important military ally of Putin’s in Syria, and Russian companies trading with Iran will get no reprieve from these sanctions. He will keep backing Ukraine against Russia, and not just because Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flatters him, too: He is hemmed in from doing anything else by Congress and by pressure from his own party. He will not drop any Russia sanctions for the same reason.
Of course, we will never know the full details of what was discussed in the two men’s private meeting, unless Trump’s translator spills the beans. Perhaps some nefarious backroom dealing went on there, or maybe Trump told Putin he would not stand in the way of the Russian leader’s objectives in Ukraine or Syria — but it’s more likely that the men spent the better part of their two hours alone together vigorously agreeing about how much they hate Hillary Clinton and how Mueller has got to go.
From the post-summit presser, it was clear that Putin’s objective was not to make concrete policy agreements, but to muddy the waters around his election meddling and make it less likely that the Trump administration will do anything to stop it from continuing. “If the Russians didn’t write Trump’s talking points, how could you tell?” a former intelligence agency chief remarked to Rick Wilson at the Daily Beast. The president’s utter refusal to accept the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s efforts to manipulate elections (both here and in Europe) signals that the White House won’t deploy many resources to guard against these tactics and that our allies cannot rely on the help of the U.S. to protect their democracies.
Putin didn’t need to come away from this meeting with a deal. As the New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa points out, the current state of affairs in Ukraine and Syria are manageable for Putin, if not ideal, and his government is not necessarily interested in giving Washington anything it might want in exchange for a freer hand in these conflicts. Agreeing to disagree on everything except that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt is a pretty decent outcome for Putin; that’s why Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov described it afterward as “better than super.”
While Trump did not hand Putin any policy wins in Helsinki, he didn’t obtain any either. Domestic politics constrain Putin from offering Trump anything he wants, just as U.S. politics, institutional norms, and the separation of powers prevent Trump from achieving a complete reversal of U.S. foreign policy and allying us with Russia against Western Europe. There just aren’t any deals to be made right now, no matter how much these two men want to help each other out.
For the president to double down on his insistence that there wasn’t any collusion, or even any meddling by Russia at all, was perhaps the best Putin could get out of him at this summit, and he did not disappoint. Fomenting a national political scandal — or better yet, a constitutional crisis — here would be a significant victory for an adversary looking to weaken the U.S. and dispel it from its leadership role in international affairs. The discord and division sown by Trump’s remarks (which diehards in the right-wing media are already blaming on the liberal media) are just the sort of thing Putin likes to see.
While we may take some comfort in the fact that Trump can’t just turn on a dime and give away the dacha, his attempt to realign the U.S. more closely with Russia and against our traditional allies in Europe remains deeply distressing. At this point, there is no doubt this is where Trump’s foreign policy is leading us: characterizing the European Union as a “foe,” shaking down NATO for money he thinks they owe the U.S., threatening to end our trade relationship with the U.K. if Brexit isn’t hard enough — and that’s just this week. In the pitched battle between pluralistic liberalism and reactionary nationalism in the Euro-American sphere, Trump has made no bones about where his allegiance lies.
Coming from the president of the United States, these words and actions have lasting consequences. Yes, Trump is constrained by the limited powers of his office against putting his preferred plans into action when every other body of government rejects them, but foreign policy, like trade, is one arena where the president has a lot of leeway to shape our relationships with other countries. Sometimes that means something as simple as the tone he or she takes with other world leaders.
Trump’s behavior this week in Brussels, London, and Helsinki — along with his endorsement of various right-wing nationalists in other countries — has clarified that he’d like to dismantle the Cold War-forged architecture of cooperation among the free countries of Europe and give Putin more leeway to restore his country’s former hegemony there (honing the Kremlin’s election manipulation tactics along the way). The implications these actions have for democracy, stability, and peace on that continent do not appear to have ever crossed his mind. He may not have the power to bend the government to his will by decree, but the longer he persists at flouting long-term alliances, tearing up treaties, and ignoring threats to the integrity of the democratic process, the greater the chances of this all ending in a real disaster.