Russian leaders bubbled over with glee after President Donald Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own spy chief in Helsinki on Monday, in what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared a “fabulous” summit that went even “better than super.”
But there can be too much of a good thing.
The Beltway’s anger over Putin’s victory lap in Helsinki could invite a new batch of problems for Moscow, experts on U.S.-Russian relations and career intelligence officials told VICE News. Trump’s summit performance may be seen as so galling that it prompts new veto-proof sanctions legislation from Congress, damaging leaks from the intelligence community and even more political protection for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling, they said.
“There are instances in which you can win too big,” said Robert Deitz, who served as senior councillor to former CIA Director Michael Hayden and general counsel at the National Security Agency.
“Helsinki was a disgrace,” Deitz said. “Putin owned Trump.”
Immediately after Helsinki, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle began grumbling about taking steps to push back against Russia and support U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The more successful the meeting is seen for Putin, then the greater the danger from Congress,” Chris Weafer, a business analyst based in Moscow and longtime watcher of U.S.-Russian affairs, told VICE News. “The real danger is that an enraged Congress pushes harder for the Deter Act.”
The bipartisan Deter Act, proposed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat Chris Van Hollen, would unleash a painful hailstorm of financial sanctions against Russia in the event that the U.S. director of National Intelligence determines that Moscow messed with another American vote.
“Putin owned Trump.”
By comparison, last April, the Treasury Department slapped just a few top Russian oligarchs close to Putin with sanctions in a move that hammered Russian financial markets. The Deter Act would automatically slap penalties on over 200 senior Russian officials and mega-rich tycoons named on a list compiled by the Treasury Department last year, and hit Russian industries including finance, energy, defense, metals, and mining.
Amid rising support from conservatives on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a vote on the Deter Act might happen.
“There’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this,” McConnell said.
Trump sought to pacify his critics by issuing a “clarification” of his remarks on Tuesday, noting: “In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’”
But a real recovery from the damage of Helsinki may require more significant moves against Russia, observers said.
“You could imagine a scenario at this point whereby Trump either has to do something kind of drastically anti-Russian to re-establish his credibility,” said Joshua Tucker, head of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University. “Or where Republicans in Congress feel compelled to do something to put some daylight between themselves and Trump on this issue.”
Trump’s deference towards Putin might prove so maddening to the intelligence community that it provokes them to quietly start pushing out harmful secrets about Moscow, Trump, or both, in an effort to underscore the validity of their own assessments, Deitz told VICE News.
“To have the president give the back of his hand to the intelligence community is galling, and at some point, people’s pride really reacts,” Deitz said. “They have enormous pride in what they do — and there are limits to how much slander they’re going to abide.”
“I do think there’s going to be some fallout in the intelligence community from this.”
Even just a few fresh leaks could have a big impact if they come from a well-placed source, said John Sipher, a former CIA officer based in Moscow.
“I do think there’s going to be some fallout in the intelligence community from this,” Sipher told VICE News. “Most people aren’t going to change they way they do business. But it only takes one person to go across that line to cause really, really serious damage.”
Cover for Mueller
The pushback in Congress could even provide a reprieve, however brief, from the heat that Congressional Republicans have put on Mueller and his team, observers said.
“The story of the summit is not becoming Putin's success, but rather whether Trump has finally crossed the line that is going to alienate Republican lawmakers,” said NYU’s Tucker.
Four days before Trump met with Putin, Congressional Republicans held a day-long hearing with embattled FBI agent Peter Strzok, who’d been removed from the Mueller probe after his private anti-Trump text messages were very publicly revealed. At the end, Republicans argued Strzok’s apparent bias poisoned the entire Mueller investigation.
Before Helsinki, Trump and his allies appeared to be waging a successful campaign to diminish and undermine the Mueller investigation, David Gergen, a political commentator who has served on the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, said in an appearance on CNN on Monday evening.
But Helsinki may have stopped that momentum, Gergen said. “It could give an extra layer of protection to Mueller,” he said.
“What Republican is going to say, ‘let’s stop this’?” Gergen asked. “The chorus is so strong that I would just assume it’s going to give extra protection.”
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during their news conference inHelsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)