President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki. They had a private, apparently unrecorded conversation, and then gave a joint press conference.
It was one of the most bizarre and disturbing events in which an American president has ever participated.
The most immediately striking thing about the conference was the overall affect of the two men. Trump appeared nervous, fidgety, and restrained compared to his usual boisterous, rambling self. Putin appeared much more coherent — a low bar to clear compared to Trump, to be sure — but also more confident and controlled, as if he held all the cards in the situation.
Overall it gave a strong impression of the leader of a small, weak country trying hard to impress and flatter the leader of a large, powerful one — except backwards, as if Angela Merkel was being pathetically obsequious towards, say, Miro Cerar.
When asked whether he would "hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular," Trump refused to criticize Russia or Putin directly, instead casting recent events as being somehow the fault of both countries: "I hold both countries [responsible]. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish."
When Putin was asked if he would extradite the 12 Russian intelligence officers recently indicted as part of the Mueller investigation into meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, he said he would consider it — but only if America would return the favor and help Russia extradite the wealthy financier William Browder, supposedly over a tax evasion conviction. (Browder actually did renounce his U.S. citizenship to evade taxes in 1998, but it's a certainty his anti-Putin politics are the real issue, and that he would not receive a remotely fair trial in Russia.)
When asked if he believed the assessment that Putin really had compromised the 2016 election, Trump straight-up said he took Putin's word over that of U.S. intelligence — specifically mentioning Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. He then proceeded to complain at length about Hillary Clinton's email server and the Mueller probe.
And in probably the most shocking moment of the entire summit, when Putin was asked if he had compromising material on Trump or his family, the Russian president — who referenced earlier how he had formerly been an intelligence officer — did not actually deny it. Instead, he claimed that he didn't even know that Trump was visiting Moscow in 2013 (where the legendary pee tape was supposedly filmed), and that his government doesn't bother to collect blackmail material on every private businessman:
Let's take St. Petersburg economic forum, for instance. There were over 500 American businessmen — high-ranking, high-level ones … Do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? Well, it's difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this. Please disregard these issues and don't think about this anymore again. [Vladimir Putin]
The implicit threat here is barely even veiled. It is exceedingly easy to believe he would collect such compromising material.
Despite the fact that much of the rest of the American security apparatus is still bitterly hostile to Russia, and the rest of the government has not taken many concrete pro-Russian actions, it is simply beyond question that Trump is really deferential to the Russian president. It could be blackmail, it could be ideological alignment, it could be payback for helping win the election, or it could just be the fact that Trump has had a giant crush on Putin for years and years (or some combination thereof). I suspect this is largely why Trump is being so disruptive towards NATO and the European Union — the latter of which he called a "foe" before the summit.
This is a terrible development for many reasons. First and most importantly is that it's bad for the hugely powerful American executive branch to be even partially in league with a man like Putin — a merciless authoritarian who is building an alliance of reactionary plutocrats. Second is the doubt it casts on the integrity of the democratic process. Trump's deference to Putin, whatever the source, is certainly not government "of the people, by the people, for the people."
However, it's important to note that neither president named any actually objectionable areas of diplomatic agreement. They did not announce Ukraine was going to be annexed, or anything like that. Indeed, there were no specific policies named at all — Putin even stated forthrightly that Trump did not agree on Russia's annexation of Crimea, while Putin himself continued to support the Iran nuclear deal. One policy that was mentioned repeatedly was, bizarrely, nuclear non-proliferation and arms limitation treaties. That may be a front given how both men have planned for new nuclear weapons, but reducing nuclear stockpiles would still be a genuinely good thing.
At least so far, it appears that Putin is attempting to cement the new status quo in Eastern Europe and squirm out from under Western sanctions, not make any more super-aggressive moves. And that means the American response to Putin's electoral espionage should be focused primarily inside the U.S. — identifying the corrupt people who invited and celebrated the effort, punishing any crimes, and securing electoral machinery from illegitimate intervention, from foreign and domestic sources.
Let's not go off half-cocked.