The strange bromance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has been a staple of the Washington commentariat ever since Trump entered the presidential race and lambasted almost everyone except the Russian President. Both as a candidate and then as president, Trump has refused to say anything negative about Putin and has repeatedly found ways to deflect or deny criticism of Russia’s alleged misdeeds, including the murdering of opponents; sending political prisoners to Siberia; suppressing minority rights; crushing opposition; annexing foreign territory; supporting Syria’s murderous regime, shooting down civilian airliners and sabotage of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Washington bureaucracy was understandably alarmed when Trump announced a summit meeting with Putin in Helsinki and made no apparent effort to get ready for the get-together. Unlike summits with prior presidents, which had been scripted in every detail, Trump apparently intended to wing it, and meet with Putin alone with no aides present who might preserve a record of what was said. The extraordinary friendliness that Trump had shown towards Putin led to the widespread suspicion that Putin might have some kind of hold over Trump, or even that Trump is a Russian agent.
Fiction writers like John le Carré, with characters such as British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla, have encouraged us to imagine that Intelligence as practiced by the major powers is characterized by, to put it bluntly, intelligence. Each side uses diabolical cunning to think many steps ahead before acting, while concealing intentions and methods with exquisite subtlety and deft tradecraft, feints and deceptions.
It is therefore stunning to encounter the reality of today, in which the ineptness of President Trump’s leadership at the recent Helsinki summit is lamented in Washington by almost everyone except the president himself, as one of the clumsiest performances by any president ever. Yet what is generally missed is that America does not have a monopoly on incompetence.
Immediately prior to the summit, Trump did nothing to dispel the suspicions of his Russian connections, touring Europe and acting exactly as if he had been following orders from the Kremlin:
Trump railed again at NATO and threatened to pull funding from the military alliance that has protected the West for 70 years. He even cast doubt on the doctrine of ”an attack on one is an attack on all,” which had bonded big nations to the small throughout the years of the Soviet threat. He criticized the British Prime Minister and her Brexit plan while visiting her country, and applauded her political opponent, Boris Johnson; He identified the European Union as a foe of America. He blamed America’s poor relations with Russia on American stupidity.
The Helsinki Press Conference
At the press conference after the summit meeting, Trump stood next to Putin and said things that were unusual for a U.S. president on an international stage:
Trump slammed U.S. intelligence agencies and Democrats; he said he trusted Putin ahead of the American intelligence agencies. In his denial of Russian sabotage in the U.S. elections, Trump praised Putin, saying that “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful.” When asked to denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election, he changed the subject to Hillary Clinton’s missing emails and ranted on incoherently about the Mueller investigation, Clinton’s server and the FBI agent, Peter Strzok. He denied several times that his campaign colluded with Russia in 2016. He refused, despite being asked multiple times, to criticize Putin for anything. He blamed the tensions with Russia on US foolishness.
On returning to Washington, he heard from both parties that for the first time in the history of the United States, an American president had been unwilling to defend the country from a hostile foreign power that had attacked it and that he had been faithless to his oath of office.
Realizing the breadth and strength of the outcry, Trump made some motions to walk back some of the more egregious statements, but his heart wasn’t in the retractons, and his statements sounded like hostage videos that he was being compelled to read.
The International Dating Game Goes On
Indeed, Trump was uncowed by the outcry and, true to his counter-punching style of leadership, he decided to double down on the Helsinki summit and propose another summit with Putin in Washington DC later this year. This proposal didn’t go smoothly either.
House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell immediately declared that Putin would not be welcome in the U.S. Congress. Putin himself let five days go by before replying to the invitation, and then suggested they could meet at the G20 meeting in Argentina in November. National Security Advisor John Bolton then announced that Trump didn’t really want Putin to come to Washington right now—he’d prefer to wait until after Mueller’s investigation concluded.