What changed in Helsinki

Questions that sounded paranoid a week ago now have to be taken seriously: Is the President betraying the country?


It’s a very odd experience to watch your worst-case scenario play out. It isn’t that you never imagined anything this bad. (Many of us did, that’s what a worst-case scenario is.) But imagining is not the same as expecting. You can still feel shocked and surprised, even as you tell yourself that you should have seen this coming.

What we saw last Monday in Helsinki was an American president completely in thrall to a Russian autocrat.

The Helsinki news conference. It was more than just one statement that might have been a slip of the tongue or a senior moment.

The single event that got the most attention was when Trump was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election that made him president. He weighed the conclusions of the entire US intelligence establishment (singling out his own Director of National Intelligence by name) against the unsupported word of Vladimir Putin, and favored Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … 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. [1]

[All quotes are from the Washington Post transcript.]

But it isn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about the 2016 election or wants to squelch any suspicions about the legitimacy of his presidency. Putting election-meddling aside, John King listed all the other things Trump decided not to make a big deal out of: Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine (including the direct annexation of Crimea into Russia), the nerve-agent attacks in the United Kingdom, and shooting down the MH-17 airliner. Also, he allowed Putin to pose as a humanitarian interested in helping the Syrian people, when Russia’s ruthless intervention in Syria is a primary cause of their suffering.

He had plenty of opportunities to confront Putin. Asked whether he held Russia “at all accountable for anything in particular”, Trump identified nothing Putin has done wrong and blamed “both countries” for the difficult state of US/Russian relations.

I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame. [2]

He couldn’t tell us enough about how reasonable Putin was being. A Putin proposal that the Senate denounced 98-0 was “an incredible offer”. [3]

Trump keeps endorsing Putin’s worldview. Even after he left Putin’s charismatic presence, the effect continued. Julia Ioffe described it best in The Washington Post: “Vladimir Putin has his own version of reality. And President Trump believes it.”

For example, when Tucker Carlson asked Trump “Why should my son go to [NATO’s newest member] Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Trump replied with a mysterious view that he surely did not get from his own national security team:

I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.

Seriously? The rest of the Balkan countries are trembling in fear over the aggression of Montenegro? And this strange notion is worth mentioning rather than Russia’s attempt to foment a coup. Everybody’s best guess is that Putin is the source of Trump’s view of Montenegro, which he repeats as fact. Ioffe explains where that kind of gullibility goes:

If America is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in its relationship with Russia, as Trump seems to agree, then why do we impose sanctions on Russian officials and companies? This has been Russia’s position all along.

Secrets kept from us, not from Russia. And then we come to the strangest thing of all: The two hours Trump spent with Putin without any Americans present other than a translator. [4] Days later, DNI Coats told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he had no idea what was said. The rest of the government seems not to know either, though the Russians have been claiming that various agreements were made. [5]

For example, Putin claims he discussed with Trump a plan for a referendum to decide whether rebellious parts of eastern Ukraine will join Russia.

Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.

Presumably, this would be similar to the referendum in Crimea, and once you accept the one you’d have no basis for refusing to accept the other, or for maintaining any sanctions that were imposed in response.

During Mitchell’s interview with Coats, the White House announced that Putin was being invited to the White House in the fall. Coats was clearly dumbfounded by this.

The White House then portrayed Coats as having “gone rogue“. But more and more it looks like Trump has gone rogue from the rest of the government, even the parts he appointed himself. [6]

The changing landscape. Here’s the main thing that has changed this week: Eight days ago, the view that Trump was actively working for Russia’s interests was a fringe position. Responsible journalists and pundits try not get ahead of the established facts and hate to be seen as alarmists, so they were actively minimizing the implications of what we’ve been seeing. Writing two weeks ago, Jonathan Chait expressed this view in an evocative metaphor:

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther.

He went on to wonder “What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?” and to boldly outline what a worst-case scenario would look like: Trump visits Moscow in 1987, and from that point forward is drawn ever deeper into a Russian orbit, relying on Russian money to save his business empire in the 1990s, and taking a favorable view of Russia into his presidential campaign from the beginning.

Each of Trump’s apparent pro-Russia moves left room for some alternative explanation: He was just bragging when he revealed sensitive intelligence the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. His ego won’t let him admit he needed illicit help to win the presidency. He admires “strong” autocrats and has a distaste for the compromises democratic leaders have to make. Hiring a Putin operative like Manafort to be his campaign chair was just a coincidence. And so on. But at some point, the individual sky-is-not-falling explanations collectively require more gullibility than the One Big Explanation.

Two weeks ago, that assertion was daring. It no longer is.


[1] More than a day later, after a firestorm of criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats — even Newt Gingrich and some Fox News hosts were unhappy — Trump tried to walk this back, saying that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would”.

As unlikely as this claim seems, give Trump the benefit of the doubt for a moment and edit the quote to match his after-the-fact intention: Does it make any significant difference? Now maybe you can interpret him as leaning towards US intelligence over Putin, but it’s still a he-said/she-said thing. US intelligence just “thinks” it’s Russia; it’s not like they know anything. The main thrust of Trump’s statement remains the same: There’s really no way to choose between them, so why make a big deal out of it?

And even as Trump was throwing a bone to Coats and the rest of his national-security team, allowing the possibility that collectively they might be somewhat more trustworthy than Putin, he also undercut that message by indicating that he still doesn’t believe what they’re telling him:

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that meddling took place,” Trump told reporters in brief remarks before a meeting with members of Congress. Yet he immediately contradicted both his own statement and that community’s findings, saying, “Could have been other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”

The consensus of American intelligence agencies, Trump’s own top advisors, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is that it was Russia, not that it “could have been other people”. Trump still wouldn’t admit that.

By Sunday, he was back to full denial.

So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!

[2] This might be a good place to mention how much heat President Obama took for his so-called “apology tour”. The Heritage Foundation published a report on it.

The Obama Administration’s strategy of unconditional engagement with America’s enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

The “apologies” in question are statements like “We have not been perfect.” and “We went off course.” I’m not sure what less he could have said about the Bush administration’s policy of torturing people, but Heritage judged that such statements “humiliated a superpower”.

[3] Putin proposed to let Robert Mueller come to Russia to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted for hacking Democrats’ computers, in exchange for his own people getting similar privileges with Americans named in some tax-evasion conspiracy theory centered on Bill Browder (the guy who spearheaded the fight for the Magnitsky Act).

When Russia sent the full list of people it wanted to interrogate, it included former US Ambassador Mike McFaul. The entire US foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, was horrified. Still, Trump considered this incredible offer for an entire day before saying no. Even in rejecting it, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the offer had been “made in sincerity by President Putin.”

[4] Democrats in Congress have proposed subpoenaing the translator to find out what was said, but Republicans have blocked them. My own feeling is that this is precisely the kind of thing that executive privilege ought to cover. I picture Obama, or some future president I like, trying to have a private conversation with a foreign leader without the suspicious circumstances of this meeting. Would I want the other party to be able to force the translator to testify? Worse, would I want our president to rely on the other country’s translator precisely to keep the conversation private?

Still, it should be up to the administration to claim executive privilege. Congress should go ahead with the subpoena.

[5] Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker:

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

This morning, finally, Trump tweeted.

I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries.

Trump blamed the “Corrupt Media” for spreading the idea that Putin got concessions from him. In fact, though, the media was just reporting what Putin and his government have been saying. Trump should blame Putin for the misunderstanding, if it was a misunderstanding. But that would mean contradicting Putin, which Trump can’t do.

[6] Trump’s chosen FBI director, Christopher Wray, told NBC’s Lester Holt:

I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt. I think it’s a professional investigation conducted by a man that I’ve known to be a straight shooter in all my interactions with him.

Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said “Russia is the larger near term threat” than even China. Saturday, the Associated Press gave us the inside scoop on Trump’s would/wouldn’t walkback.

Vice President Mike Pence, national security advisor John Bolton and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly stood united in the West Wing on Tuesday in their contention that Trump had some cleanup to do. They brought with them words of alarm from Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, as well as from a host of congressional leaders and supporters of the president for whom Trump’s public praise of Putin proved to be a bridge too far.

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Comments

  • Abigail Hafer  On July 23, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    The private conversation between Don the Con and Putin seems like a good time to say “If there’s no written record of an agreement, then there is no agreement.” Although the fact that 45 and Putin chatted together and could have made all sorts of agreements between themselves is still terrifying to me, at the very least we can stand up for the idea that the US should not be bound by an agreement that no one besides 45 and Putin knows about. If there is no formal record of a specific agreement, then nothing that they said was binding.

    • Creigh Gordon  On July 23, 2018 at 12:31 pm

      It’s probably worse than that, given that the Constitution requires Senate approval of treaties. If the Senate hasn’t ratified it, no reason why anyone except Trump should believe it’s an agreement at all.

  • coastcontact  On July 23, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    You have neglected to ask the appropriate questions. 1) What was said in the Trump – Putin summit? 2) Are there any financial connections between the Trump Organization and Russian oligarchs? 3) What are the objectives of Putin?

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On July 23, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    “It’s a very odd experience to watch your worst-case scenario play out. It isn’t that you never imagined anything this bad. (Many of us did, that’s what a worst-case scenario is.) But imagining is not the same as expecting. You can still feel shocked and surprised, even as you tell yourself that you should have seen this coming.”

    Actually, as a NYC ex-pat, I register not the slightest surprise at the results of the Helsinki summit. The was noting in the previous year and a half of the Trump Presidency, or his career as a shyster, fraud, bully, and ego-driven narcissist that suggested ANY different outcome.. What is still somewhat surprising, is the Republican rollover – it is utter and complete capitulation. Even the febele protests of GOP leadership, in the face of what may be absolute treason, are all mostly noise, no signal.

    So despite all of the problems with Sec Clinton, the dysfunctional DNC and the neoliberal tilted Democratic party, after Sen Sanders was sucessfully supressed, I still held my nose and voted for her.

  • Dale Moses  On July 24, 2018 at 2:06 am

    A suggestion for an alternate title: since I came up for it too late for all my other discussion forums in this age of the one minute news cycle

    “I mean’t nyet”

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