The political class in the US, as well as many of Washington’s European allies were astonished to watch Donald Trump playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands at the Helsinki summit on Monday (16 July).
In some of the strongest words yet reflecting the unease of America’s traditional allies, Germany’s foreign minister said yesterday that Europe could no longer rely on the United States.
"We can no longer fully rely on the White House", says Foreign Minister @HeikoMaas. In order to recalibrate our partnership with the US we need a united, confident and sovereign Europe! #EuropeUnited #Trump @GermanyintheEU
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) July 16, 2018
“To maintain our partnership with the US we must readjust it,” Heiko Maas told the Funke newspaper group. “The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe.”
We need to find a new balance in our partnership with the US. “Europe cannot stand by while something that has been built up over the course of decades is wilfully damaged,” says Foreign Minister @HeikoMaas. #NATO #Trump @GermanyinUSA @GermanyNATO @GermanyintheEU pic.twitter.com/owHQL6mvtr
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) July 13, 2018
Standing side by side with Putin, Trump refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 US election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism at home.
He also said nothing about Ukraine, a country that suffers Russian hybrid aggression and lost part of its territory, the Crimean peninsula.
Remarkable press conference in many respects. Trump hadn’t a single word to say on Russian actions against Ukraine. Nada. Null. Zero. Nothing. pic.twitter.com/DaQOG0IBYW
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) July 16, 2018
Although he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Trump spoke not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Instead, he denounced the “stupidity” of his own country’s policies, especially the decision to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
— Mark Stone (@Stone_SkyNews) July 16, 2018
Just three days ago, the US Justice Department announced an indictment of 12 Russian spies for hacking into Democratic Party computer networks.
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) July 13, 2018
Trump’s performance at a joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki stirred a wave of condemnation in the US, including criticism from within his own Republican Party. The White House has struggled for months to dispel suggestions that Trump was unwilling to stand up to Russia.
Asked if he believed US intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump said he was not convinced it was Moscow.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Pres. Trump on Russia meddling into U.S. election: "Pres. Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today, and what he did is an incredible offer—he offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators." https://t.co/HERDboeaJt pic.twitter.com/oehct7vkAm
— ABC News (@ABC) July 16, 2018
Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, promptly made it clear he did not share the president’s view. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he said in a statement.
STATEMENT FROM DAN COATS: "The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election…" pic.twitter.com/X1DbEBVEMU
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) July 16, 2018
The news conference also rattled some officials in the State and Defense Departments and in US intelligence agencies, according to officials in five government offices.
Some career diplomats also expressed alarm. Bill Burns, a former US deputy secretary of state and ambassador to Russia, said in a telephone interview: “I have… seen a lot of performances by presidents on the world stage, but I cannot think of one that was more appalling than this one.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns doesn't mince his words on the Trump/Putin summit: "I think that press conference was the single most embarrassing performance by an American president on the world stage that I've ever seen." https://t.co/tQzciloNCn
— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) July 16, 2018
Hours after the Helsinki summit, Trump tweeted: “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people. However, I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”
As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
‘Russia is not our ally’
Former CIA Director John Brennan denounced Trump’s performance as “treasonous,” and Republican US Senator John McCain called the meeting with Putin a “tragic mistake,” although some other Republicans were more cautious.
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???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Other congressional Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who until now had issued only muted criticism of Trump’s attitude toward Russia, were more critical on Monday.
President Trump just attacked our intelligence agencies and law enforcement for doing their jobs while standing next to a dictator who intervened in our election to help elect Trump.
Putin will take this as a green light to interfere in 2018, and it is. Cowardly and shameful.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) July 16, 2018
Ryan, the top Republican in the US House of Representatives, was tempered in his remarks but insisted that Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally”.
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter. “This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”
But Republican Senator Rand Paul defended Trump, telling CNN: “Absolutely I’m with the president on this; the (US) intelligence community was full of biased people.”
The White House said Trump would meet with members of Congress on Tuesday. It gave no further details.
— The Hill (@thehill) July 17, 2018
‘Foolishness and stupidity’
Before the summit even began, Trump blamed his own country for the deterioration in relations.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” he said on Twitter.
Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
The Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted back: “We agree”.
At the news conference, Trump was invited by reporters to offer any criticism of Russia, but he repeatedly declined. Asked if Russia was at all to blame for the poor ties, he said: “I hold both countries responsible. I think the US has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said, before veering into a discussion about his election victory.
“I beat Hillary Clinton easily and frankly we beat her… we won that race and it’s a shame that there can be even a little bit of a cloud over it,” he said.
Trump’s warm words for Russia were a marked contrast from the past week, when he repeatedly rebuked long-standing US allies at a NATO summit and during a visit to Britain.
Asked if Putin was an adversary, he said: “Actually I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is, and I think the word competitor is a compliment.”
Putin spoke of the importance of the two countries working together and praised Trump, at one point interrupting the news conference to give the US president a soccer ball.
'Now the ball is in your court'
— ITV News (@itvnews) July 16, 2018
Asked whether he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election and had instructed officials to help him, Putin said: “Yes I did,” although he denied any interference, saying the allegations were “complete nonsense”.
Putin suggested US investigators might travel to Russia to participate in questioning Russians accused by Washington of US election meddling as long as Russian investigators were allowed to do the same with US spies operating in Russia, an idea Trump’s critics dismissed as ludicrous.
The summit capped a trip abroad during which Trump accused NATO allies of failing to spend enough on their militaries and embarrassed British Prime Minister Theresa May by saying she refused to take his advice about how to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. He referred to the European Union as a “foe” in trade and repeatedly criticised it.
Trump was asked by a journalist to comment on the Nord Stream 2 project. When he was in Brussels last week, Trump slammed Germany for paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Russia to import gas, “the country that we are supposed to be protecting you against”.
Trump said he had discussed the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel “in pretty strong tones”. He said the US will compete by selling LNG, admitting that Russia had “a little advantage locationally”.
On the same issue, Putin said he assured Trump that Russia was willing to weep the transit trough Ukraine in place.