Donald Trump spent five hours with Vladimir Putin on Monday and failed, repeatedly, to condemn him for anything at all.
By the end of the summit in Helsinki, Finland, and with the world watching, the president passed up numerous opportunities to criticize Putin for interfering in American elections, flagrant breaches of international law, or countless other crimes that have been condemned by the international community.
Instead, the president took aim at his own country. He attacked U.S. presidents for the hostility with Russia, he blamed special counsel Robert Mueller for pitting the countries against each other, he criticized the U.S. intelligence services, and condemned Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Asked directly if he could think of anything for which he held Russia responsible, Trump said he did—but failed to name a single misdemeanor. “I hold both countries responsible,” he said, standing beside Putin. “I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time frankly before I got to office. I think we’re all to blame.”
The Helsinki summit saw the two men hold more than two hours of private one-on-one talks, followed by a working lunch with aides, followed by a news conference. Trump threw away several chances to criticize Putin for Russian meddling in the 2016 election, appearing to believe what he described as Putin’s “strong” denial of Russian involvement over U.S. intelligence.
Asked directly who he believed between every U.S. intelligence agency and the Russian president, Trump said: “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 tweeting it out and 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 other—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. I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server.”
Putin, who, during the conference, admitted he wanted Trump to win the election because he talked about normalizing ties with Russia, repeatedly denied Russian involvement in the U.S. election. However, he did say he would look into the allegations that a dozen Russian intelligence officials interfered.
The much-anticipated summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin started on one astonishing note of agreement—that the U.S. was responsible for the hostility between the two countries, not Russia.
The tweet from Trump blaming U.S. “foolishness” for the degeneration of the relationship between the two countries kicked off the day and it didn’t take long for the Russian foreign ministry to quote-tweet the president saying simply: “We agree.”
That note of accord was met with huge discomfort back home, where most diplomats and senior officials believe that the tensions with Russia stem from Putin’s disregard for international law. In 2014, he annexed Crimea—the first such land-grab in Europe since the disintegration of the Soviet Union; his military was responsible for the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing 298 people; he backed President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria; and is accused of authorizing the use of a deadly nerve agent to poison five people, killing one, in Britain.
On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed indictments claiming that Putin’s intelligence apparatus had hacked into the email accounts of American politicians in order to subvert U.S. democracy.
Instead of sounding a note of caution, Trump announced that he hoped the two men would emerge from their private meeting—no aides or note-takers allowed—as the start of an “extraordinary relationship.”
The warm words followed a brief bout of macho posturing between two men who take pride in their strongman images. Putin used one of his favorite tactics: arriving late for the meeting to keep his opposite number waiting, only touching down in Finland after the meeting was due to begin.
Not to be outdone, Trump delayed his departure from the Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorpp, arriving at the Presidential Palace after Putin despite the fact he’d been in the city since Sunday evening. Eventually, the meeting got underway an hour behind schedule at 2 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET).
As they sat down for the traditional handshake photo and some brief opening remarks, there were few smiles, although there appeared to be a wink from Trump to Putin denting the tension.
There was a three-second handshake, and Trump praised Putin for the successful staging of the World Cup competition, saying that he’d enjoyed the final and semifinals of the “beautiful” competition. “In the United States we call it soccer,” Trump explained to Putin via an interpreter.
Trump offered a brief insight into what the two men would be discussing in their closed-door meeting—although what was missed out may have been more insightful, namely Russian interference in the U.S. election. “We have a lot of good things to talk about. We have discussions on everything from trade to military, to missiles, to nuclear, to China, we’ll be talking a little bit about China—our mutual friend President Xi,” he said.
Much has been said on whether Trump sees Putin as a friend or a foe. While sitting next to him, Trump told the gathered media that he would love to be closer to the Russian president.
“I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” he said. “I’ve been here not too long but it is getting close to two years, but I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. I’ve been saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard, over the years ... that getting along with Russia is a good thing not a bad thing.”
Many would say, in the wake of a tweet blaming the U.S. for the bad relationship with Russia, and the President backing Russian intelligence over his own, the relationship between Putin and Trump is already quite extraordinary enough.