On Monday, July 16, the President of the United States and the President of Russia stood side by side in Helsinki, Finland, and answered questions from the press. People around the world are still trying to plumb the significance of the moment.
One exchange in particular is worth quoting here at some length:
JONATHAN LEMIRE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you sir is, who do you believe? My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you want him to never do it again?
TRUMP: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?
I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?
With that being said, all I can do is ask the question.
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. But I really do want to see the server but I have, I have confidence in both parties.
The first two paragraphs of that reply are non-responsive, and restate common anti-Clinton talking points. The final two paragraphs are where the action is here. Dan Coats is indeed one of Trump’s “people,” — his replacement for the ousted James Comey as Director of National Intelligence. The extraordinary point is not just that Trump here puts Coats on the same level with Putin: Coats says X, Putin says Y, Trump avers his “confidence in both.” It is that Trump also says that he “doesn’t see any reason why it should be [X,]” effectively siding with Putin over Trump’s own “people” and, to return to the terms of the question, over the U.S. intelligence agencies in general.
From the Right
The reaction was immediate and quite negative. Further, much of the wave of criticism that resulted came from the right of center. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain (R – AZ), for example, said in a statement: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
Commentary, the neoconservative flagship, observed on its website that the President seemed to be channeling Noam Chomsky (never a complimentary comparison coming from any shade on the right).
In the face of such responses, from all sides, the President retreated the following day. He said that the controversy was the result of a simple slip of the tongue. He had meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.” But somehow he said “would” instead of “wouldn’t.”
The tape of the event shows him punching the word “would” for emphasis. It doesn’t sound like he meant to say the exact opposite at that moment at all. Nonetheless, the “slip of the tongue” excuse is an old reliable way for politicians to climb down from an indefensible position.
The Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R – WI), says that he understands the need to have good relations with Russia, but this shouldn’t lead us to deny the emphatic fact that Russia did interfere in US elections.
The National Review. Bill Buckley’s old journal, nowadays the carrier of paleoconservatism, tells the President, “If all your trusted friends say you’re wrong, maybe you’re wrong.” An NR article, by Garaghty, asks, “What happened to the tough guy?...What happened to America First?”
Even the effort to walk-back the odd statement in the press conference seemed to many strangely off. After saying that he does believe that Russia interfered with the campaign, Trump added, “it could be other people too. There’s a lot of people out there.”
The Daily Beast said that qualifier about unspecified “other people” shows the extent to which POTUS is “caught between the demands of his self-inflicted public relations catastrophe of the moment and his instinct never to back down and never to give the adversarial press and his political enemies a scalp.”
A writer in RealClearPolitics is a rarity, someone in the traditional media who defends the President’s performance in Helsinki. This writer, Angelo Codevilla, thinks the AP reporter’s question, as quoted above, was improper because it asks about “opinions” and “the truth about the charge that Russia stole the contents of the Democratic National Committee’s computer server is not to be found in the opinions of any persons whatsoever.” Given the impropriety of the question, the answer, Codevilla thinks, was the right one.
From the Left
On Thursday, July 19, The New Yorker tweeted, “The real scandal of the Helsinki summit may be only just emerging.” That tweet linked to an article in TNY by Susan B. Glasser, which maintains that the real scandal was not in the press conference but with the confidential meeting between the two men (with only their respective translators present) prior to the conference.
Putin has maintained that he and Trump reached certain “useful agreements” during their time in that setting. Glasser objects that Trump has not confirmed that any agreements were reached, much less what they were, and she says that information about the meeting even “to America’s top diplomats” has been “sparse and potentially incomplete.”
Seth Abramson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, tweeted that it is suspicious that only Trump’s meetings concerning Russia have been private — otherwise, his administration has been transparent. This situation alone, he says, should raise suspicions of untoward conduct.
But let’s return to the very public joint press conference. Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, called it “deeply unsettling,” yet another “awful spectacle in a Presidency that delights in awful spectacles.”
Andrew Restuccia and Louis Nelson, in Politico, said that after the “would/wouldn’t” explanation from the White House, debates about Russia policy had turned into a bizarre play with semantics. It is, further, the culmination of a pattern. “For months,” they write, “the White House has danced around forcefully and directly condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.”
Politico also contends that staffers are leaving the White House because they can no longer in good conscience be a part of this administration. Leftists respond to this news on twitter with comments that work variations on, “they should all leave and cleanse their souls.”
Sean Illing, in Vox, stressed that the meeting was an odd one from the get-go because there were no clear policy objectives for it, no constraints on conversation, and no real groundwork by staff aside from a single trip to Moscow by John Bolton.
Finally, for our brief survey, on July 20, Morgan Chalfant, writing in The Hill, emphasized that this wasn’t just some isolated one-news-cycle flurry: that the questions about Trump’s performance at Helsinki were not going away.