We will never know what was said between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their private summit in Helsinki on Monday. What we do know is what was said in their joint news conference following their two-hour meeting. It wasn’t pretty.
Trump refused to support the findings of his own intelligence agencies that Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he bashed the FBI, and said he accepted Putin’s denial that Russia had anything to do with election interference.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said, after saying he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible.
This, despite the firm conclusion of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election with the intent of helping Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton.
In fact, Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, contradicted Trump in a statement after the news conference: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
The reality that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election is simply not in doubt. But Trump continues to see that as an attack on the legitimacy of his election victory, which he again referred to in the news conference.
Republicans and Democrats alike reacted with horror to Trump’s remarks.
Rep. Greg Walden, in a statement issued Tuesday: “Russia’s interference in our elections and repeated attempts to subvert democracy in America must be condemned by our country’s leaders. As I have said repeatedly, I fully support the findings of the hardworking Americans in our intelligence community that Russia deliberately attacked our democratic process and continues its hostile efforts against our country and our allies.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Monday: “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan: Trump’s performance “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, usually an ally of the administration, said Trump “showed weakness,” and called his performance “a national embarrassment.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, another Trump ally, said the press conference was “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
On Tuesday, Trump walked back his remarks — sort of.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he said, but added, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
None of the intelligence agencies support that assertion.
And he repeated his insistence that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, although none of the intelligence assessments, nor the indictments handed up last week, have made that claim.
He said he misspoke Monday, that he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible for election interference.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” Trump said. “So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
No, it doesn’t clarify anything.
We don’t believe for a minute that Trump misspoke, given his refusal on Monday to say he believed his own intelligence agencies over Putin’s denial. We do, however, continue to doubt his fitness to function as the leader of the free world.
Before the summit, Trump said in a tweet: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
Apparently he has forgotten the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two nations were on the brink of a nuclear exchange. Or the years of the Cold War, when American school children practiced crouching under their desks in case of nuclear attack.
On Monday, Trump said both the U.S. and Russia were to blame for poor relations.
“I hold both countries responsible. I think the U.S. has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish.”
We see only one fool.