Donald Trump’s much-anticipated meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday offered him yet another opportunity to defy those who’ve criticized his coziness with the Russian leader.
But on a global stage, Trump didn’t just cower; he actively cemented an image of submissiveness to his Russian counterpart.
“I honestly had little to no good expectations for this,” said a senior Trump political appointee who works on issues surrounding Russian disinformation efforts, adding that the event “went about as well as I expected.”
“Trump looked incredibly weak up there. Putin looks like a champion,” the official continued. “I’d like to say I’m shocked, but this is the world in which we live now.”
The president’s prominent allies on the outside weren’t thrilled, either. “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—immediately,” Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and an informal adviser to Trump, tweeted on Monday evening.
The gathering in Helsinki demonstrated a level of obsequiousness toward Putin that was remarkable even by Trump’s own standards. At a press conference following a one-on-one meeting between the two, the president refused to say whether he believed the U.S. intelligence committee’s assessment that Putin’s government illegally attempted to sway the 2016 presidential election, pushed conspiracy theories about the 2016 election, and declined attempts to get him to criticized Russia’s global meddling. The entire affair deeply shook much of the political establishment, which viewed the Trump’s actions as an acquiescence of U.S. leadership.
But those who have worked for the president say they have come to expect these types of moments—in large part because they are rooted in two of Trump’s most prominent characteristics: insecurity and stubbornness.
Trump, said one former senior White House official, is more afraid of looking illegitimate than of looking like a puppet for Putin.
“It’s the [fear] that it’s perceived as looking like he really didn’t win,” the official said of what was driving Trump’s behavior.
“If anyone expected Trump to stop being Trump precisely for those few hours of meeting with Putin, this was a wishful thinking by far,” Sergei Utkin, head of strategic assessment at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told The Daily Beast in an email.
Privately, Trump has a different explanation, one not based on self-reflection or fear. He has told—or spun—people that there are various benefits to forging warmer relations with Putin and Moscow. Among them, according to those who have spoken to President Trump, is a belief that he is standing in the way of others trying to “start World War III.”
“It’s the reverse of the Nixon-China play,” a former Trump administration official familiar with the thinking behind the summit told The Daily Beast. “Russia and China are cozying up to each other and it’s a lethal combination if they’re together. China by itself is a far greater danger,” and the U.S. needs to head it off, he said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
In defending his approach to Russia and other regimes, Trump has recently expressed to those around him a sympathy for Sen. Rand Paul’s non-intervention streak—a sentiment made all the more ironic given some of Trump’s actions in Syria, for instance, have openly risked a wider, military conflict with Russia. During the joint presser with Putin, Trump even played to some of Paul’s favorite rhetorical themes by stressing that his conduct was preferable to “conflict and hostility,” and that the world has seen the results when “diplomacy is left” by the wayside.
Not many others see it this way. Instead, for many watching the performance, Monday’s press conference was a Rorschach test for how one feels about the Trump era itself.
The president’s critics seized on it as evidence that he was at best naive about international threats, and at worst a “Russian asset,” as Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth suggested in a statement on the event.
For the true Trump faithful, by contrast, the episode was hardly a moment of geopolitical shame. Instead, it was the triumph of a new global posture and a screw-you attitude of presidential proportions.
“The folks that wanted [Trump] to call Putin a liar to his face would be the first to call him unpresidential if he had,” insisted Barry Bennett, a senior adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign turned federal lobbyist. “It’s up to [special counsel Robert] Mueller to make the case now. Convict them or not.”
And, as an added bonus, it owned the libs.
“I watched talking heads explode post-comments,” Eric Bolling, a Trump friend and former Fox News host, told The Daily Beast after the Trump-Putin remarks on Monday. “I thought [CNN host] Anderson Cooper was going to cry. I found [President Trump] consistent.”
Whether that attitude can sell beyond the Trump faithful seems dubious at best. For many, the president did not appear to be playing master diplomat during the rambling question-and-answer session that followed his hours-long meeting with Putin on Monday. Instead, he came off like a conspiracy theorist eager to air petty political grievances.
Asked about the U.S. intelligence committee’s assessment that Russia did, in fact, attempt to sway the outcome of the 2016 election, Trump questioned the veracity of allegations that Russian agents hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee. He later invoked the Pakistani former IT administrator for a number of House Democrats, who has become a fixture on conservative talk radio and primetime cable news shows over vague allegations of a foreign conspiracy against the U.S. government. Federal investigators said last year that they had found no evidence of such a plot. And, per his want, Trump spent ample time railing against former Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and the so-called Mueller “witch hunt.”
Putin could have hardly scripted it better himself. And as he watched it all unfold before him, he indulged the conspiracy theorists himself, bringing up Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, a longtime conservative bogeyman who has been targeted by right-wing governments in Europe of late over his own alleged campaigns of political meddling.
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was less blistering but similarly disappointed, even as he said that the president's vast foreign policy powers would be hard for Congress to check.
“This event ended up being far worse than I thought it would be, rhetorically. Hopefully, no deals were made and nothing happened,” Corker said in an interview. “The president can do more damage in 15 minutes to that relationship than all of us working together for months can overcome. That’s the problem here.”
The White House spokespeople had no immediate response to these statements when asked by The Daily Beast during Trump’s flight home. But Vice President Mike Pence was characteristically ebullient in his praise of Trump’s performance. “What the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first,” Pence declared.
Democratic Party stalwarts were—predictably—not inclined to agree.
Former Clinton campaign officials—the very people who are prone to expect the most nefarious explanations for the president’s behavior—expressed horror at what they saw on Monday. The press conference left them grappling for a unifying theory, one that was more compelling than Putin having some sort of secret, compromising material that he was holding over Trump’s head.
“Honestly?” said one Clinton veteran. “It probably just comes down to his personal insecurities. He's terrified of his election being called illegitimate so he says whatever he has to to stop that. If Russia helped him win that makes him look bad. We already have seen evidence of collusion and that can be attributed to just being willing to say or do anything to get ahead which has always been Trump's deal. The most likely thing Putin has on Trump now is evidence they worked with Trump's team during the election.”
—With additional reporting by Kim Dozier and Andrew Desiderio