No one expected Donald Trump, who has been praising Vladimir Putin for years, to suddenly turn into a Russia hawk at their unprecedented summit in Helsinki Monday. But at a press conference following a very long private chat between the two men, it was still shocking to watch the American president essentially agree with propaganda pushed by a hostile government.
When asked if he held Russia responsible for anything, Trump replied, "I hold both countries responsible"—before launching into an attack on Special Counsel Robert Muller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election that brought him to power. The probe "is a disaster for our country. I think it's kept us apart, it's kept us separated," Trump added. "There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it... That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And, frankly, we beat her—and I'm not even saying from the standpoint—we won that race. And it's a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it. People know that, people understand it. But the main thing—and we discussed this also—zero collusion."
Putin, for his part, insisted Russia did nothing to help get Trump elected, even as he admitted favoring the Republican over Hillary Clinton. (Given Trump's pro-Putin views, this is hardly shocking.) But then a reporter pointed out US intelligence agencies agreed Russian hackers had targeted Democratic groups and leaked their emails in an effort to aid Trump. Who did Trump believe?
The president's response was a word salad that included denunciations of the Democratic National Committee not giving its physical server to the FBI (a frequent hobbyhorse of his), a conspiracy theory about a separate case involving a Pakistani American who was working for House Democrats before being embroiled in scandal and pleading guilty to making a false statement on a loan application, and those famous "missing emails" of Clinton's. Trump also drew an equivalence between his own government and Putin's statements:
My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coates came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia... So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
There is a boatload of evidence to contradict that denial, no matter how strong. That the Russians were likely responsible for hacking the DNC has been widely reported in the media for two years. In January 2017, US intelligence agencies unanimously declared that Putin had directed efforts to disrupt the election and help Trump. On Friday, a dozen Russian intelligence operatives were indicted by Trump's Justice Department for hacking. There are concerns that Russian may try similar tactics during this year's midterms, though such hacking efforts are not "robust" so far, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
What's odd about Trump's insistence on making nice with Putin is that administration has undertaken some aggressive actions, like providing weapons to Ukrainians fighting pro-Russia forces and expelling Russian diplomats in response to a poison attack in the UK. (The president has also been insufficiently harsh on the country to satisfy his critics—in January, he missed a congressionally-imposed deadline to sanction Russia.)
Where Trump's Russia stance has been truly baffling is his rhetoric. For years, he's denied the conclusions of US intelligence agencies, denials that have become increasingly convoluted and fact-averse. On Monday, he literally joined Putin in casting doubt on US intelligence in statements that didn't even try to engage with the evidence. He just took Putin at his word. Hey, on one side I have my law enforcement agencies, on the other I have a foreign leader who has lied about things like where his troops were deployed. Who am I supposed to believe?
At this point the most benign explanation is that Trump is so narcissistic that he can't sort out his personal interests from those of the nation he's supposed to be leading—the Russian hacking helped him, so how could it possibly be bad for the US? Darker explanations for this behavior, of course, suggest Trump consciously colluded with the Russians or might even be a Russian "asset" facing blackmail over a years-old tape of prostitutes peeing on a bed.
Even Republicans unlikely to take such theories seriously spent Monday denouncing Trump. "Today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American presidency,” Republican Senator John McCain said in a statement. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant." Senator Ben Sasse, another Republican who is a frequent Trump critic, called it a "propaganda win" for Putin. Justin Amash, a libertarian-ish Republican congressman, was slightly more cautious but still called Trump out on Twitter:
These GOP critics are unlikely to move against Trump in a meaningful way beyond criticizing him, and politicians like Sasse support the president in other arenas, like his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. But the past week has laid Trump's absurd pro-Russia bias bare: Within days of calling the European Union a "foe" and making a bizarre foray into UK politics during which he reportedly told British Prime Minister Teresa May to "sue" the EU, barely 72 hours after his own Department of Justice made serious charges against Russian hackers, Trump bent over backward to accommodate Putin. Even in the Trump era, these sort of moves stand out as illogical, at least from outside the White House.
At a certain point, it becomes impossible to ignore the question: What is Trump getting out of this?
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