President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki, Finland, yesterday for the first ever summit between the two leaders. The men discussed a variety of issues including nuclear proliferation, energy and the Syrian Civil War.
“I have just concluded a meeting with President Putin on a wide range of critical issues for both of our countries. We had direct, open, deeply productive dialogue. It went very well,” Mr. Trump said at the press conference that followed the meetings.
“Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world. I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics. As President, I will always put what is best for America and what is best for the American people,” he added.
President Putin touched on many areas where he believed cooperation with the United States could and should improve, such as economic issues, global terrorism & transnational crime and the Iranian nuclear deal. No specific steps or commitments were announced in the wake of the summit however.
What dominated the press conference and the commentary after the summit was the President’s responses to questions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
It is the widely held view of the U.S. intelligence community that Russian actors interfered in the presidential election, did so at the behest of the highest levels of the Russian government and with the intent of helping President Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
An investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller into the affair has been going on for over a year.
President Trump said he raised the issue with Vladimir Putin during their meetings. The two men met privately for about 90 minutes with only a translator present before expanding the meeting to include a larger number of senior aides.
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me — [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.”
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be…But I have — I have confidence in both parties….What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? Thirty-three thousand emails gone — just gone. I think, in Russia, they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.”
“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,” the President added.
It was the seeming equivocation and the President’s willingness to take President Putin’s word over the word of the U.S. intelligence community that prompted sharp rebukes from lawmakers on Capitol, many of them Republicans.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy,” he added.
“I’ve said a number of times and I say it again, the Russians are not our friends and I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“This is bizarre and flat-out wrong. The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs,” said Sen. Ben Sasse.
“I am confident former CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, DNI Dan Coats, Ambassador Nikki Haley, FBI Director Chris Wray, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others will be able to communicate to the President it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his electoral success,” said South Carolina Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy. Gowdy is also Chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
“It’s certainly not helpful for the President to express doubt about the conclusions of his own team,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “He has assembled a first-rate intelligence team handled by Dan Coats and I would hope that he would take their analysis over the predictable denials of President Putin.”
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections. This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” wrote Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Twitter.
“The bar was so low for this press conference,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “All Trump needed to do was offer some mild pushback against the election interference, say something about the need for Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and he couldn’t do any of that.”
“America is a whole lot weaker than we were going into this today,” he added.
The President was defiant in the face of the criticism however, claiming the meeting with Vladimir Putin was just as successful as the meetings he had with NATO leaders just days prior.
“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!” the President wrote on Twitter.
Photo by The White House