Trump’s humiliating performance contrasts with Putin’s control
Press conference shows a rambling, inexperienced and amateur US president
The signs were not auspicious. As President Donald Trump prepared to leave the Hilton hotel in Helsinki shortly after 9am local time for his summit with Vladimir Putin, news arrived that the Russian president was running late.
This was not unremarkable – Putin makes a habit of leaving dignitaries waiting. He delayed a meeting with Barack Obama by 40 minutes in 2012. On one occasion, Putin showed up more than fours hours late for German chancellor Angela Merkel. Even the pope was not above Putin’s strategic time-keeping. The Russian leader arrived an hour late at the Vatican for his first meeting with the pope in 2015.
That Putin applied this well-tested approach to the leader of the United States was in one way breathtakingly audacious. But it said a multitude about the state of US-Russian relations and Trump’s unorthodox approach to international relations and diplomacy.
The power dynamics of the summit were set by Trump even before the meeting started. In two early-morning tweets, the US president blamed America – not Russia – for deteriorating relations between the two countries. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The tweet was retweeted by the Russian foreign ministry with the words: “We agree.”
It follows a bizarre series of statements by the president over the weekend blaming Obama for Russian interference in the election and claiming that Russia would not have invaded Crimea if he, Trump, had been president.
But for those hoping that the much-anticipated summit with Putin would end up being just more hot-air from the president, it instead went down as the most extraordinary – even humiliating – performance ever delivered by a US president in the presence of a foreign leader.
From the opening moments, Putin appeared in control. As the two men stood side by side, the Russian was every inch the experienced politician, a former KGB operative who has retained an authoritarian grip of his country for 18 years. In calm, controlled tones, he opened the press conference, commanding ownership of the narrative. In contrast, Trump exposed himself as the inexperienced amateur that he is, taking his cue from the Russian president and rambling from point to point.
It went down as the most extraordinary – even humiliating – performance ever delivered by a US president in the presence of a foreign leader
His prepared statement talked vaguely about the importance of dialogue over confrontation, failing to address any of the points raised by Putin, including his denial of Russian interference in the US election.
But the second half of the press conference was vintage Trump, as he freewheeled through the question-and-answer session, unable to resist raising the issue of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
It was, however, his response to a direct question on Russian interference in the election that was most alarming.
Asked if he believed that Russia interfered in the election, Trump replied: “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” He went on to describe the Russia probe as “a disaster for our country . . . there was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it . . . It was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily, and frankly . . . we won that race.”
This is despite the fact that US intelligence services have found that Russian individuals did interfere in the election. Twelve Russian intelligence agents were indicted last Friday for hacking the Democratic National Committee email system, and Trump’s own director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, believes that Russia is to blame.
In what may be a bone for Robert Mueller’s investigation, Putin, for his part, admitted that he had wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election because the businessman wanted to improve US-Russia relations.
Putin also displayed his unique brand of diplomatic condescension – inviting US authorities to Russia to investigate the 12 Russians who were indicted last week, but insisting that Russian authorities be allowed into the US in return.
As the press conference drew to an end, Putin broke from his studied pose and tossed the US president a World Cup football – a perfect answer to Hillary Clinton’s question on Twitter earlier in the day to the president: “Do you know which team you play for?” The two men looked like two team-mates on a football pitch rather than the leaders of two international powers, one which has been accused of interfering in the democratic processes of another.
The two looked like team-mates on a pitch rather than leaders of two international powers, one which has been accused of interfering in the democratic processes of another
As Trump left the Presidential Palace in Helsinki and boarded Air Force One, the focus returned to Washington and how Republicans – traditionally the party of tough foreign policy and law and order – would react to the extraordinary display by their leader.
On one level, many Republicans and US allies can take solace from the meeting. In a summit with few deliverables, Trump did not capitulate on issues that worried Nato members.
There was no promise to end Nato exercises in the Baltic regions, a key demand of Moscow, that would have unnerved countries in eastern Europe concerned about Russian expansionism.
Neither did Trump agree to easing sanctions against Russia over Crimea.
But the president rode roughshod over any progress he might have claimed from the summit by failing to confront Russia over election interference and taking the side of Russia over his own intelligence services. This will be the defining takeaway from the first one-on-one summit between the two leaders.
It could also have serious ramifications for a president who is being investigated by a special counsel about links between his campaign team and Russia.
Donald Trump may continue to defy the authority of his own intelligence community and closest foreign policy advisers, but in the background the Russian investigation is still ongoing.
Ultimately, despite his extraordinary display of defiance and misplaced loyalty, Trump may find that no one is above the law.
Suzanne Lynch is Irish Times Washington Correspondent