Whether it was the result of criminal conspiracy or Trump’s ignorance, arrogance, and ego is as yet unknowable. But when Trump and Putin addressed the press here in the capital of Finland after meeting one-on-one for more than two hours, and then with staff, there was no question who was in charge.
Putin laid out his version of their talks. Then Trump, in a jaw-dropping moment, dissed his own intelligence services and deferred to Putin’s denials on the critical question of Russia’s ongoing cyber attacks targeting American democratic institutions.
Of the many Trump remarks that will live in infamy, this one will stand out: “Dan Coats [the Trump appointed Director of National Intelligence] 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.”
Suddenly, unmistakably, the humiliation of the United States government was obvious to everyone except, it seems, Trump himself.
The turmoil in Washington provoked by the American president’s behavior in Helsinki has only just begun, with a predictable avalanche of commentary that now uses the hitherto rare T-word. (Indeed, #TreasonSummit was trending all day, even before the press conference.)
Former CIA Director John Brennan's reaction was especially blunt: "Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"
Many commentators likened Trump to Britain’s Neville Chamberlain appeasing Adolf Hitler in 1938, when Chamberlain returned from an abject surrender to Nazi demands by declaring he’d won “peace in our time.” And some thought Chamberlain looked better.
But in the present tense the spectacle of an American president surrendering his country’s prestige and standing, if not indeed some part of its sovereignty, had specific global as well as national implications.
A Kremlin advisor suggested to The Daily Beast last week that Putin, with his total command of facts and details, would shock and awe an American president who went into the meeting apparently believing that his gut would guide him to some sort of triumph. And from Putin’s opening statement to the close of the press conference, it was evident that is exactly what happened.
Russia’s attacks on the U.S. elections of 2016, which helped put Trump in office, have been documented in detail by the investigations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, and recorded in the courts by multiple indictments.
Putin said that nothing had been proven, and, citing a 1999 treaty with the United States, offered under its terms to have his own people question 12 members of Russian military intelligence (GRU) named in the most recent, remarkably detailed charges filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Putin said he would let Mueller’s people watch the questioning, as if this were a huge concession, but only if Putin’s people could interrogate American intelligence operatives in the United States.
Specifically, Putin said he wanted his people to interrogate suspected U.S. intelligence operatives who supposedly helped hedge fund manager Bill Browder mount a global campaign against Putin and his cronies for their corruption and human rights abuses. The result has been a collection of very specific and painful sanctions under a series of so-called Magnitsky acts in the U.S. and around the world that have targeted Putin’s close associates.
In fact, an offer of “cooperation” investigating crimes that the Kremlin allegedly ordered, including a quid pro quo allowing Russian agents to pursue their own targets, is a standard Putin ploy. When the British identified specific agents in the London murder of the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, poisoned with the rare isotope polonium 210, the Scotland Yard detective sent to Moscow under such a “cooperative” arrangement found himself thwarted and threatened, as The Daily Beast’s Nico Hines reported earlier this year.
Trump’s aides probably were aware of this history. But Trump endorsed Putin’s ostensible offer of cooperation in the investigation of … Putin’s own intelligence service’s attacks on American democratic processes. Trump called that “an interesting idea.”
At the Helsinki press conference, Putin often spoke for the American president. He said Trump had held firm to the U.S. position that Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was illegal. But he invited Trump to get involved with what’s called the Minsk process. That diplomatic initiative dating back four years has done little or nothing to end the war waged by a Russian-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
Trump, obviously unfamiliar with details, said nothing substantive about Ukraine, much less Minsk.
Prior to the summit, there was widespread speculation that Trump and Putin would cut a deal about Syria, and that does appear to be in the works. Part of it would help to secure Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights adjacent to Syria, and part of it is concerned with the “return” of Syrian refugees to a country supposedly at peace.
As The Daily Beast’s reporting from Lebanon makes clear, refugees forced back to Syria at this point are likely to face the not-so-tender mercies of the Russian-backed Assad regime that is notorious for imprisoning, torturing or simply disappearing its subjects. But the Russians and the Assad regime know that headlines about “returning refugees” are a great propaganda ploy.
Putin, former KGB case officer that he is, certainly knew that these kinds of details would bore Trump, who imagined he was engaging in big-time statecraft even as he sounded petty and defensive:
“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than risk peace in pursuit of politics,” Trump declared in his opening remarks, focusing on Russia as a nuclear power. But of course nuclear war is not on anyone’s agenda. From Putin’s point of view, it’s not even relevant. He’s winning so much at so little cost.
From the moment Putin ran down the stairs of his aircraft, predictably late for the summit, it was clear that he was in good mood, self-confident and relaxed. Trump already had given him a dream present by blaming the U.S. a for bad relationship with Russia, thus rationalizing all the Kremlin’s wrongdoing in one Twitter post, as if Putin's wars in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine, the shooting down of a civilian airliner, the poisoning of Russian defectors, and the concerted ongoing cyber attacks on American polity had nothing to do with it.
The moment Trump blamed the “foolishness and stupidity of the United States,” all the Kremlin’s favorite media outlets, including the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Rossia-24 TV channel instantly headlined Trump’s words.
It was a hot day in Helsinki, so Putin, relaxed and smiling, took off his jacket outside the plane, right in front of all stiff Finnish and Russian officials in their suits. He feels at home in Finland, and he was about to meet the man he’d thought since at least the U.S. election season of 2016 would be very useful to him. “I wanted him to win,” Putin admitted later at the press conference. Trump, with his guidance, would be somebody who would fix all the tensions between Russia and the U.S.
“It was obvious that Putin played Trump easily, since he was offering to solve all Trump’s political issues," Timur Olevsky, the Current Time/RFE television host, told The Daily Beast. "This is a classic KGB trick: first they create a problem for you and then they help you solve it.”
“Trump is not a free president, while Putin’s hands are completely free now," said Olevsky. "Putin offers his service of protection, of solving Trump’s problems; besides, it sounds like Putin came up with a great way to put an end to the U.S. sanctions: he offers an exchange of secret service investigations, joint projects and bilateral agreements, which will allow Russian officials to travel to the U.S.”
Jarmo Koponen, a senior Finnish correspondent and Russia expert agreed: “Putin has been trained to be a mastermind of human souls, he is a specialist, so he’s really got Trump by the balls!” Koponen told The Daily Beast.
This year Putin’s former employer, the Federal Security Service, FSB, the successor of KGB, celebrated its 100th anniversary and Putin spoke proudly about his past work as an intelligence officer. In Helsinki at the press conference, the Russian leader used the classic KGB rule: “You can’t believe anyone,” he said, suggesting Trump should not believe his own intelligence services.
At Monday’s joint press conference, Putin smiled at reporters, almost flirting with some of them, and, alluding to the infamous investigative memos compiled by a former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele, Putin said he he had “worked on such dossiers,” meaning phony intelligence files.
But, had Trump not been so acquiescent, Putin might have had a lot to worry about. The Mueller indictment of 12 GRU officers for hacking American political parties‘ most sensitive files exposed some phenomenal operational security problems for the Kremlin.
“That report revealed a huge leaking hole in the system,” said Alexei Venedictov, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow. “Just imagine that the report is true and Putin’s intelligence system leaked all the names, the ranks, the number of files.
“I have no doubts that Mueller had sources inside the Russian special services, so Putin was smart to welcome all investigators to Russia — to find out who was the son-of-bitch who was leaking.”
In the meantime, the smiling KGB veteran can take solace in the fact he just recruited in public the president of he United States.