Donald Trump went into his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin looking to change the relationship between Moscow and Washington. But instead he sparked outrage at home by accepting the Russian leader’s denial that the Kremlin meddled in the US presidential election despite reports to the contrary from his own nation’s intelligence services.
Mr Trump said that Mr Putin had issued a “strong, impressive denial.” and he saw “no reason” why Russia should be involved. The president appeared aware it would not sit well – having been asked directly at a press conference to warn Mr Putin against interfering in US elections – but said he would risk anything to go his own way. “Nothing would be easier than to refuse to meet,” he said.
Mr Putin, too, came clean. Yes, he had willed Mr Trump to the presidency in 2016 — it was, he said, the “best hope for a normalisation of relations”.
In Washington, the condemnation came thick and fast. Former CIA director John Brennan called Mr Trump’s actions “treasonous”, while Republican Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
The Arizona Republican said the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was “a tragic mistake.”
The senator said Mr Trump proved not only unable, “but unwilling to stand up to Putin.” He added that the two men “seemed to be speaking from the same script” as Mr Trump made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant.”
While the reaction from Trump critics like Mr McCain and House and Senate Democrats are to be expected – words like “weak” and “disgraceful” were used – the disapproval also came from unexpected places, like Republican House leader Paul Ryan.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world… The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy,” Mr Ryan said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats added: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy”.
Mr Trump sought to defend himself, tweeting that he has “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people”. However, the president made clear he would continue to push for Washington and Moscow to “get along”.
“I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past,” Mr Trump wrote. “As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”
The summit in Finland was the long-awaited joining of two of the world’s most powerful men; men frequently mentioned in the same breath — as allies and as competitors as Mr Trump has said. Their two years in power have defied the usual rules. While relations between their countries soured, they have continued to talk about each other fondly.
It was the chance to put meat on that relationship, with Mr Trump claiming that contact between the two nations had “never been worse”. It did not take long for the games to begin.
Mr Putin had arrived late, perhaps half an hour behind the unofficial schedules. But that, by his normal standards, was almost a show of respect. He was met on the tarmac by the new Russian presidential limousine, the Kortezh, the Kremlin’s answer to the American “Beast,” and travelled by extended convoy to the Finnish presidential palace, the venue of the talks. Here, Donald Trump managed to have the last say. He arrived at the palace a full fifteen minutes after Mr Putin. Call it a draw, but who was counting?
The meeting started awkwardly. With President Trump staring blankly into the camera, he congratulated President Putin on organising “one of the best World Cups in history.” He said he wanted the United States “get along with Russia.” But he barely offered eye contact to anyone but the cameraman.
Mr Putin nodded back, while appearing somewhat bored, somewhat irritated.
Things improved. There was an unusual, unstructured one-to-one meeting, which was initially scheduled for 90 minutes. The meeting overran by 40 minutes — allowing for “chemistry” to develop between the leaders, Kremlin official Yuri Ushakov told journalists. Mr Trump described it as a “very good start.” Then, the meeting was extended to include advisors.
Ahead of the meeting both sides emphasised low expectations. Russian state media held a line that the very of the fact summit was an achievement — no doubt true, given the Kremlin’s post-Crimean isolation. On the American side, Ambassador to Russia John Huntsman even tried to rename the talks. This was not a summit, he insisted, but a “meeting.” There would be “no state dinner, no deliverables, no joint statement,” he told US television.
When the two men emerged at press conference, both said they were satisfied with the results. The relationship had never been worse before they met, said Donald Trump — “but that changed four hours ago.” Vladimir Putin was never quite as effusive. There could never be total trust, he said, cryptically: “As for who to believe, who you can’t believe, can you believe at all — you can’t believe anyone. It isn’t that Trump believes me or I believe Trump. We have coinciding interests.”
The press-conference was dominated by Mr Putin, with Mr Trump apparently sticking close to a script. And it was the Russian leader who offered the main glimpses of what was discussed. There was “agreement” on the importance of Israeli security, he said, suggesting a serious discussion about Iranian troops in southern Syria. There was talk of a new “dialogue” on nuclear proliferation, with a list of Kremlin proposals passed to the White House.
Other than that — predictably — there was no breakthrough on the contentious issues. There was no mention of sanctions and only passing mention of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s advisor on Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov, does not even appear to have even taken part in the talks.
Mr Trump, who had initiated the talks, needed a big announcement and a strong performance. It was debatable whether he got it.
“This was not the assertive Trump we saw with Nato or Britain,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert considered close to the Kremlin, referring to Mr Trump’s previous stops on his European visit.
“Putin led, Trump followed. And that revelation is likely to cause a tsunami in the United States”