Unbowed by the broad condemnation of his extraordinary embrace of a longtime U.S. enemy, President Donald Trump declared Tuesday that his summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin went “even better” than his meeting with NATO allies last week in Brussels.
The tweeted defense came a day after Trump openly questioned his own intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to his benefit, and he seemed to accept Putin’s insistence that Moscow’s hands were clean.
Trump’s reference to his NATO performance carried an edge, too, since the barrage of criticism and insults he delivered there was not generally well-received. He dismissed it all with a new attack on an old target: the news media. He said his NATO meeting was “great” but he “had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!”
In fact, the reaction back home was immediate and visceral, among fellow Republicans as well as usual Trump critics. “Shameful,” ”disgraceful,” ”weak,” were a few of the comments. Makes the U.S. “look like a pushover,” said GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki was his first time sharing the international stage with a man he has described as an important U.S. competitor — but whom he has also praised a strong, effective leader.
His remarks, siding with a foe on foreign soil over his own government, was a stark illustration of Trump’s willingness to upend decades of U.S. foreign policy and rattle Western allies in service of his political concerns.
A wary and robust stance toward Russia has been a bedrock of his party’s world view. But Trump made clear he feels that any acknowledgement of Russia’s election involvement would undermine the legitimacy of his election.
Standing alongside Putin, Trump steered clear of any confrontation with the Russian, going so far as to question American intelligence and last week’s federal indictments that accused 12 Russians of hacking into Democratic email accounts to hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“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.
“He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said.
His skepticism drew a quick formal statement, almost a rebuttal, from Trump’s director of national Intelligence, an Coats.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said.
Fellow GOP politicians have generally stuck with Trump during a year and a half of turmoil, but he was assailed as seldom before as he returned home Monday night from what he had hoped would be a proud summit with Putin.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona was most outspoken, declaring that Trump made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant” and achieved “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rarely criticizes Trump, stressed there was “no question” that Russia had interfered.
Even staunch Trump backer Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, called Trump’s comments “the most serious mistake of his presidency” and said they “must be corrected — immediately.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who served under President Barack Obama, called Trump’s words “nothing short of treasonous.” Brennan tweeted: “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul emerged as one of the president’s few defenders from his own party. He defended Trump’s skepticism to CBS News Tuesday citing the president’s experience on the receiving end of “partisan investigations.”
Back at the White House, Paul’s comments drew a presidential tweet of gratitude. “Thank you @RandPaul, you really get it!” Trump tweeted.
As he flew home to Washington Monday night aboard Air Force One, Trump tried to clarify his position on the U.S. intelligence services, saying via tweet: “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”
In all, Trump’s remarks amounted to an unprecedented embrace of a man who for years has been isolated by the U.S. and Western allies for actions in Ukraine, Syria and beyond. And it came at the end of an extraordinary trip to Europe in which Trump had already berated allies, questioned the value of the NATO alliance and demeaned leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May.
Trump and Putin had held lengthy talks before, on the sidelines of world leader meetings in Germany and Vietnam last year, but this was their first official summit and was being watched closely, especially following the announcement Friday of new indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking Democratic emails to help Trump’s campaign.
Asked about the indictments, Putin suggested that Moscow and Washington could jointly conduct the investigation, inviting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators to come to Russia to interview the 12 people, an idea Trump hailed as an “incredible offer.”
Putin said he’d expect the U.S. to return the favor and cooperate in the Russian probe against William Browder, a British investor charged with financial crimes in Russia. Browder, an outspoken Putin critic, was a driving force behind a U.S. law targeting Russian officials over human rights abuses.
The summit began just hours after Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, blaming “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The Russian foreign ministry responded by liking Trump’s tweet and then replying, “We agree.”
Putin ridiculed as “sheer nonsense” allegations that Russian intelligence agencies had collected compromising information on Trump during his visit to Moscow years before the election, saying that he had no idea Trump was even visiting.
Trump also dismissed the idea in his interview with Hannity, adding, “If they had it, it would have been out.”
Still, Putin said he had indeed wanted Trump to win the election — a revelation that might have made more headlines if not for Trump’s performance — but had taken no action to make it happen.
“Yes, I wanted him to win because he spoke of normalization of Russian-U.S. ties,” Putin said. “Isn’t it natural to feel sympathy to a person who wanted to develop relations with our country? It’s normal.”
Out on the streets, the summit attracted a grab-bag of protesters, with abortion-rights activists wearing artificially bulging bellies and Trump masks, anti-fascist protesters bearing signs with expletive-laden insults, and free traders, anti-war Ukrainians and gay rights supporters making their voices heard.