Those who have known President Trump for decades attest that the former New York real estate mogul fears two things above all: being humiliated and looking weak. But a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin left Trump suffering through both indignities.
Even though the two leaders met on neutral ground in Finland, Putin ran the press conference after their meeting as if he was the host. The Russian leader spoke first and called on the first reporter to ask a question. Trump, who often puffs out his chest when he walks into a room, stood by as Putin set the pace of the exchange.
During a 46-minute joint press conference, Trump delivered no criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, no mention of the country’s alleged hand in the recent use of a nerve agent on British soil and no criticism over its attempts to interfere with the 2016 elections.
Trump not only declined to criticize Putin, but broke with the assessments of his own intelligence agencies, House and Senate committees and members of his Cabinet to question whether Russia even played a role.
“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,” Trump said. “I have confidence in both parties.”
That refusal to endorse the American intelligence and confront Russia, prompted Coats to issue an unusual statement defending his office’s conclusions.
But Trump didn’t stop there. He went so far as to endorse Putin’s brazen idea to have Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators travel to Russia to interview Russia agents, in exchange for giving the Russians access to U.S. intelligence officials in its own investigations.
In Trump’s view, the two hours he spent behind closed doors with Putin were “deeply productive dialogue” that could turn around deeply damaged U.S.-Russian relations. “That changed about four hours ago,” Trump said. “I really believe that.”
John F. Kennedy left two days of meetings in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 feeling he’d been “savaged.” President Ronald Reagan’s summit on arms control with Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed in 1986, but sowed the seeds for an agreement a year later.
But presidential historian Julian Zelizer can’t think of a moment in American history comparable to the Trump-Putin summit.
“This kind of unscripted, in your face, attack against political parties in the U.S., intelligence agencies in the U.S., while standing next to an adversary, there’s not anything quite comparable to that,” Zelizer said. “He decided to go after his own intelligence and the FBI right in front of a leader who has such a long list of bad behavior, especially against the U.S.”
Even as Trump looked weak, Putin asserted himself in ways both subtle and forceful.
When asked by a U.S. reporter if Russia had compromising material about Trump, Putin didn’t deny that possibility, instead deflecting by saying he’d heard “these rumors” that the Kremlin had embarrassing information from Trump’s visit to Moscow in 2013, but said people should “disregard” them.
While Trump consistently referred to his counterpart as “President Putin,” the Russian leader once referred to him as “Donald.”
The contrast with Trump was even more startling given the U.S. President’s recent public behavior around other world leaders. At the G7 Summit in June, a photograph of Trump, arms crossed, staring implacably at German Chancellor Angela Merkel spread across the internet. Afterward, he accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of making “false statements” about disputes over tariffs and backed off of a standard-issue statement signed by leaders that he had already agreed to sign. While visiting England, he gave an interview to a tabloid newspaper harshly criticizing Theresa May for her approach to Brexit and blasting the mayor of London. At a NATO meeting, he blasted allies — inaccurately — over an agreement on defense spending. Leading up to the meeting with Putin, Trump called the European Union a “foe” in an interview.
Trump’s allies have long defended this bluster with foreign leaders as a necessary corrective to past weakness on the part of his predecessors, while the President himself has argued it’s part of his “America First” approach to the world.
But that Trump was nowhere to be seen at the Helsinki summit, and the President has no one to blame but himself.