(Economist) The summit offered up a graphic reaffirmation of what was already known
THE story of the meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki has a beginning and an end, but no middle.
It began with a statement from the American president. The lowly state of Russo-American relations, he tweeted, was not the fault of the Russian government for seizing Crimea, shooting down a passenger airliner, interfering in America’s presidential election or using a banned nerve agent to kill citizens of a close ally on its own soil. No, it was the fault “of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt”.
It ended with a joint press conference that John McCain, a Republican senator, described as, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
In the middle was a void, in which the two presidents met with nobody else in the room but their interpreters. For those who watch Mr Trump daily and have observed his habit of being confrontational with other people when at a safe distance and then seeking to please them when face-to-face, this encounter seemed freighted with risk. Would he give away Crimea by mistake? Would he commit to some Russian-led military initiative in Syria? In fact this part seems to have gone relatively well. Both presidents reported that they talked about nuclear weapons, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) which covers short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. The chances of them signing an extension to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) are perhaps greater now than they were before the meeting. That is not nothing.
Yet it is hard to pinpoint a decisive change in American foreign policy that came out of the Helsinki meeting. What it offered instead was a reaffirmation of things that America already knew about its president. Mr Trump thinks that the world benefits when America and Russia have close relations, and that “the United States has been foolish” on this point. He takes the judgment of America’s intelligence services that Russia intervened in the 2016 election campaign to be a personal insult, an accusation that he needed outside help to beat Hillary Clinton. He will readily believe the word of a former KGB agent over the views of the CIA or FBI on this point. Americans who question this are liable to be described by their president as enemies of the people. The probe run by Robert Mueller is “a disaster for our country”. It was jarring to see Mr Trump say these things standing on a podium next to Mr Putin, but they are all things he has said before, countless times. This is not a performance. He really means it.
One part, near the end of the press conference, is worth quoting at length to give an unmediated sample of the president’s thinking:
REPORTER, Associated Press: President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is: who do you believe? My second question is: would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you want him to never do it again?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats [director of national intelligence], 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 really do want to see the server but I have, I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails 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 e-mails. 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 and what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people [GRU officers indicted by the Department of Justice]. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK? Thank you.
For readers who are rubbing their eyes at this point, it is important not to lose sight of a few things that will endure once this summit is over. Mr Mueller’s probe has gathered so much detail about the activities of the GRU that its future activities would seem to be compromised. Russia’s economy is weak, and American sanctions will not be lifted by the Senate anytime soon. Some of America’s institutions are not doing their job. But some of them quietly are.