Special counsel Robert Mueller sent the White House a message last week that evidence proves that Vladimir Putin’s government was behind Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election. Three days later, a bluntly worded question gave President Donald Trump the perfect opportunity to call out the Russian president.
But in one of the most stunning moments in the long, complex history of U.S.-Russian relations, Trump refused to accept the view of the top U.S. intelligence officials blaming Russia over Putin’s denials.
“All I can do is ask the question,” Trump replied to AP reporter Jonathan Lemire.
“But I don’t see any reason it would be (Russia),” he added. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
In the news conference following their meeting Monday in Helsinki, Trump missed an opportunity both to defend U.S. intelligence agencies and to warn Putin that the U.S. won’t stand for a repetition of what happened in 2016. Just days earlier, Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, warned against “persistent … pervasive” Russian efforts to “undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis.’
His answer again raised the underlying question of whether Trump’s consistently charitable attitude toward Russia stems from calculation, ignorance or something worse.
Trump also failed to hold the Russian president accountable for Russia’s aggressive acts in Crimea and Ukraine and the poisoning in Great Britain of a former Soviet spy. It was a disastrous final chapter to a highly damaging European trip, on which Trump sowed discord within NATO, trashed our closest allies, called the European Union “our foe” and blamed poor U.S.-Russia relations on past presidents and Mueller’s “witch hunt.”
His failure to confront Putin gives the Russian president license to continue efforts to undermine the West while exacerbating doubts among U.S. allies whether they can depend on the United States if, for example, Putin seeks to extend Russian influence over the neighboring Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Monday.
So what explains this complete reversal of decades of American efforts to strengthen the Western alliance and approach Russia warily?
Trump loves spectacles like the Helsinki summit and last month’s Singapore meeting with North Korea’sKim Jong Un and feels that, by developing such personal relationships, he can make the kind of deals with global adversaries he made when buying or selling New York real estate.
But the jury is out on tangible results from the Singapore meeting at which Kim pledged “denuclearization” but offered no details or timetable. By refusing to hold North Korea and Russia responsible for their misdeeds, Trump sent a message that he is so eager to deal, they need pay no price for their actions.
As far back as 1984, then real estate developer Trump talked of facilitating better U.S.-Soviet relations. As a candidate, he expressed doubts about NATO’s viability.
Trump is reluctant to acknowledge that anything helped him win in 2016 besides his “brilliant campaign.” “I beat Hillary Clinton easily,” he said. “And it’s a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it.”
Finally, there are lingering rumors, unproven so far, that Russia has “something” on Trump that makes him willing to follow its lead. “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler?” asked Jonathan Chait in a lengthy New York Magazine article filled with both detail about their past relationships and unanswered questions as to what it signifies.
Indeed, Lemire followed his initial question by asking Putin if the Russians had compromising information on Trump and his family.
The Russian president said he has “heard the rumors” but did not know Trump was in Moscow in 2015 when some of the incidents purportedly may have taken place and called it “utter nonsense.”
Until Friday, Russia could argue with some justification there was no proof its government was behind efforts to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But that changed when Mueller secured indictment of 12 Russian agents for hacking Democratic National Committee computers, providing explicit details how they did it. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he briefed Trump of the charges because he “needs to understand what evidence we have of foreign election interference.”
He also said “there’s no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result” but carefully limited any statement absolving Trump or his campaign of complicity. “There’s no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime,” he said.
But Mueller’s investigation is far from over. Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, said on CNN that he “would not be surprised” if future indictments name Americans, noting Friday’s indictment “doesn’t say there were no Americans involved.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.