US President Donald Trump outraged Democratic rivals, and many Republicans, when he defended Moscow over claims of interference in the 2016 US presidential elections as he stood by Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first one-on-one summit in Helsinki.
After more than four hours of talks, including 130 minutes of closed exchange with translators only, Trump contradicted US intelligence agencies and said there had been no reason for Russia to meddle in the vote.
This came only three days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller obtained a new indictment charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democrats and stealing information on about 500,000 American voters.
The indictment, released Friday, accused the Russian spies of hacking into the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and of releasing emails obtained from that cyberattack with a goal of influencing the election.
Putin reiterated that Russia had never interfered in US affairs. At a news conference after the summit, Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.
“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he replied. Instead, he condemned the Justice Department’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia as a “disaster for our country”.
He suggested that the FBI deliberately mishandled its investigation of Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee. And he labeled an FBI agent who testified about the investigation before Congress as a “disgrace to our country”.
“I think that the probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said. “I think it’s kept us apart; it’s kept us separated. There is no collusion at all.”
US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyberattacks and fake news stories planted on social media.
Instead, Trump saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the Mueller investigation into the affair, calling it a “ridiculous” probe and a “witch hunt” that has kept the two countries apart.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” the president continued, only moments after Putin conceded that he had wanted Trump to win the election because of his promises of warmer relations with Moscow.
“Yes, I did; yes, I did,” Putin said, when asked if he had wanted Trump to win, “because he talked about bringing the US-Russia relationship back to normal.”
In response, Trump said: “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia that was responsible for the election hacking].” Trump added: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
He then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, and asking about the fate of emails missing from the server of Clinton. “Where are Hillary Clinton’s emails?” Trump said, reviving an old election fight he stressed during his campaign.
In a strongly-worded statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.” He tweeted: “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” adding that there was “no question” Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain joined a few key Republican leaders who sharply criticised Trump for his performance during the news conference with Putin.
He said it was a “disgraceful performance” by a US president. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said in a statement.
Another senior Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted that it was a “missed opportunity... to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling”.
In a series of tweets, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s actions had “strengthened our adversaries while weakening our defenses and those of our allies.” He tweeted: “For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous and weak.
The president is putting himself over our country,” Schumer wrote.
The US director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who was referred to in Trump’s remarks during his news conference with Putin, also issued a statement saying that the intelligence community had been clear about Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to undermine US democracy.
John O Brennan, who served as CIA director under former US president Barack Obama, suggested that the remarks warranted Mr Trump’s impeachment. “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanours,’” Brennan wrote on Twitter, calling Trump’s behaviour “treasonous”. “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
Trump, while on Air Force One on his way back to Washington, responded by tweeting that he had “great confidence in my intelligence people”, adding: “I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along.”
US Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at the US Department of Commerce, defended the summit and praised President Trump.
“Disagreements between our countries were discussed at length, but what the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first,” said Pence.
Some US politicians had called for the summit to be cancelled after 12 Russian military intelligence agents were indicted by the FBI Friday.
In their joint news conference Monday, Putin offered to allow US investigators to visit Russia to question the officers, a gesture which Trump described twice as “an incredible offer”.
However, Putin made it clear that, in return, Russia would want similar access to people in the US it suspects of criminal activity.
Before their encounter started, Putin was already winning on points, by the mere fact that President Trump was meeting him in the first place.
But while Putin came over as the seasoned professional, eager to present his country as an equivalent to the US in terms of being a nuclear superpower, an energy provider and a key factor in the Middle East, Trump seemed more intent on castigating his opponents back home.
Putin described the Helsinki meeting as “candid and useful”, while Trump said there had been “deeply productive dialogue”. Trump said US-Russia relations had “never been worse” than before they met, but that had now changed.
Trump had begun his day Monday on Twitter, blaming American “foolishness and stupidity” for years of escalating tension with Russia, as well as the “Rigged Witch Hunt”, in reference to Mueller’s investigation.
The comment appeared to relieve Russia of many disagreements that soured US-Russian relations, including the election hacking, the annexation of Crimea, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Moscow’s suspected use of a nerve agent to poison a former Russian intelligence agent who spied for Britain.
In fact, Russia’s Foreign Ministry retweeted
Trump’s comment, declaring “we agree.”
For much of the news conference, Mr Trump appeared to be far more focused on defending the legitimacy of his election victory than on determining who was behind the election hacking. “There was no collusion at all — everybody knows it,” Trump said. “That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily.” He added: “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.”
The Helsinki summit meeting capped a weeklong European trip in which Trump disparaged NATO allies for not paying enough to cover the alliance’s expenses, castigated Germany over its immigration policy and gas deals with Russia, attacked the British Prime Minister Theresa May, on her own soil, saying her ousted foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, would make a good prime minister, and dubbed the European Union as a “foe” in trade negotiations.
Even before the summit with Putin Monday, he said he expected his talks with the Russian president to be easier than those he was due to conduct with European “allies”.
Putin and Trump said they would work together on nuclear arms control, although neither mentioned a concrete set of actions on forging a new treaty to replace the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021.
They also did not address what American officials have said are Russian violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The two also said they would work together to secure Israel’s border with Syria, on restoring a ceasefire in the Golan Heights, and to cooperate to bring humanitarian relief after civil war has raged in Syria for more than seven years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Grounds for impeachment?