The Horror of Helsinki Continues…

It would be a silly game if it were not so dangerous. I think I put the “not” in the right place. It is a small word, easy to misplace or forget. But, it is a word full of meaning. By claiming he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would” in Helsinki, President Donald Trump gave cover to all those pusillanimous Republicans scared to challenge him. It is a game, after all: He pretends to apologize, they pretend to believe him.

So, when an obviously pained and uncomfortable Trump (watch the video here) read from a prepared script Tuesday to say he meant to say in Helsinki “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” that meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, the credulous in the Republican Party rushed to his defense. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said, “I’m just glad he clarified it.” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio agreed. “I’m glad he clarified his comments,” Portman said. 

“Clarified” appeared to be Tuesday’s GOP mot juste. Except, one tiny problem remained: Trump clarified nothing. Only the gullible could believe his abject performance as President Vladimir Putin’s lapdog could be reduced to one omitted negative when Trump repeatedly denied during the Helsinki news conference that Russia interfered in the election and followed Tuesday’s forced statement with an apparent ad-lib, “Could be other people also.” (This is reminiscent of Trump’s remark after Charlottesville about “blame on both sides.” There is a pattern here.) In Helsinki, instead of admitting the obvious, Trump repeatedly said he took Putin at his word and frequently attempted to deflect questions about Russian involvement by raising Hillary Clinton’s emails or Democratic Party servers. Moreover, Trump appeared to take back Tuesday’s half-hearted apology when he denied the following day that Russia was still targeting American elections with a one-word response, “No.”

American intelligence officials testifying on Russian election interference, January 2017.

Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s denials is not just a repudiation of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. It is a rejection of the conclusions reached by everyone who has looked at the evidence. The heads of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency signed off on a report in January 2017 that concludes Putin “ordered an influence campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election” to “denigrate Secretary Clinton” and to show a “clear preference for President-elect Trump.”  

Trump’s Justice Department evidently believes that crimes were committed during the 2016 election since it has indicted more than a score of Russians for engaging in “information warfare” and hacking the Democratic National Committee.  Among those indicted were operatives working for Russian military intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded earlier this month that Russia attempted “to sow discord, undermine democratic institutions, and interfere in U.S elections and those of our allies.” Even the report of the House Intelligence Committee — written only by Republicans, most of whom are more than willing to do the White House’s bidding — found that Russia meddled in the election, though the report also claimed there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Putin’s government. High-ranking officials of Trump’s cabinet — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (once Trump’s CIA director) and Defense Secretary James Mattis — have affirmed their belief in Russian interference. 

President Trump interviewed by Jeff Glor.

Only Trump persists in absolving the Kremlin in the face of such unanimity. He stood on the stage next to Putin for nearly an hour ignoring repeated opportunities to say what is obvious to almost everyone else. More than that, two days later the president patted himself on the back, telling Jeff Glor of CBS, “I think I did great at the news conference.” Statements like that put me in awe of Trump’s ability for self-abasement. 

Of course, more serious than what Trump said at the news conference, or meant to say, or thought he said is what Trump and Putin discussed in their more than two-hour one-on-one meeting. One of the scariest newspaper headlines in recent memory has to be this one on the front page of Thursday’s Washington Post, “U.S. officials in the dark about talks with Putin.” “Important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki summit, according to Russian officials, but no one in the American government — besides Trump — knows what those may have been. And, Trump is notorious for his inability to focus for long periods of time. (Reminder: He met with Putin for more than two hours. How well did he concentrate in a lengthy meeting with the former KGB officer?) Worse yet, Trump Thursday tweeted, “I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed…” (Trump has invited the Russian despot to the White House in the fall, on the eve of the midterm elections.)

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael MdFaul with President Barack Obama,

One of the issues apparently discussed between Trump and Putin was a proposal by the Russian president to allow Russians to interview American officials in exchange for permitting Mueller to interview Russians. One of the Americans in Putin’s sights was former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, a vociferous Putin critic. (Disclosure: In the 1990s, I covered the State Department while working for CNN. I frequently interviewed McFaul on U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations.)  In Helsinki, Trump twice called Putin’s proposition “an incredible offer.” Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was considering allowing McFaul and others to be questioned by Russian officials. “He said it was an interesting idea,” Sanders told reporters. Only Thursday, with a firestorm erupting over the possibility that a U.S. diplomat would be made available by the American government for questioning by a foreign adversary and the Senate poised to pass a resolution instructing the administration not to honor the Russian request, did Trump relent. “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders said in a statement. The message sent to American foreign service officials by such waffling by the administration is chilling. 

Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki.

Trump’s cavalier treatment of McFaul demonstrates, once again, that the president of the United States cannot be counted on to protect American citizens or the nation’s interests. The whole sad and sorry Helsinki episode raises again the question of why Trump is so craven in his relationship to the murderous tyrant in the Kremlin. What does Putin have on Trump? Is it scandalous behavior on a trip to Moscow? Is it related to Trump’s attempts to build a Trump tower in the Russian capital? Are money laundering or other illegal activities involved (more reason to demand Trump’s tax returns)? Or, is it some sordid combination of all of the above. We await Robert Mueller’s report for clarification. 

Posted July 20, 2018

Comments are closed.