The much-awaited summit in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly had the stuff of spectacle. There they were, Vlad and the Dealmaker, dancing around questions of meddling, Ukraine and Syria like two Fred Astaires. It all went according to the program. Unfortunately, a program choreographed by Putin.
Americans and much of the rest of the world had wondered whether and how Trump would confront Putin over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Heightening the curiosity: the Justice Department’s blockbuster indictments last week accusing 12 Russian military intelligence agents of hacking into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and state boards of elections.
The summit afforded Trump an ideal setting to bluntly tell the ex-KGB agent that America won’t stand for tampering with a U.S. election — a message particularly resonant with midterm elections just around the corner. He could have sounded tough, inflexible even, on an issue so pivotal to American democracy.
Instead, at a news conference following the meeting with Putin, Trump not only came across mealy-mouthed, he expressed doubt about his own intelligence community’s findings about Russia’s involvement in meddling in the presidential campaign. “They think it’s Russia,” Trump said, referring to American intelligence officials. “I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
How about 12 reasons — the 12 indicted Russian spies? It’s hard to size up what’s riskier: Putin the mischief-maker or an American president who refuses to believe his own intelligence community’s legwork on Putin’s chicanery. Last week, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, likened the Russian cyberrisk to the U.S. to the specter of terrorism in the lead-up to the Sept. 11 attacks on America. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said.
The risk is real, Mr. President, and it’s ominous. At the core of Putin’s playbook is this credo: If the subterfuge works, then use it again. Failing to see the peril in Putin’s ways endangers America and its allies. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, said after the Putin-Trump news conference. Russia, he added, “remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
When the question of the Russian agents’ extradition to the U.S. came up, Putin injected a plot twist. Instead of flatly refusing such a demand or handing over the agents to the U.S. to face trial, Putin suggested that U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators could travel to Russia to observe while Russian officials question the 12 agents about their actions. In return, though, Washington would have to allow Russian agents to conduct investigative work in the U.S. on topics that interest Moscow. Trump should have laughed at the idea — instead he called Putin’s nonsense “a generous offer.”
Mueller is seasoned enough to know Russian officials questioning Russian intelligence agents about a Russian plot to meddle in an American presidential election isn’t worth a ruble. If Mueller and his team do end up making the journey, however, one word of caution once they arrive in Moscow: Don’t drink the tea.
This editorial was written by the staff of the Chicago Tribune. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.