Possibly the dumbest reaction I’ve seen so far of today’s Trump debacle is from Ross Douthat.
One difficulty with the “Trump is a Russian asset” theory is that you would expect a real Russian asset to pretend he isn’t one publicly while quietly pursuing pro-Russian policies behind the scenes; Trump has basically done the reverse.
â€” Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 16, 2018
While much of the world sputters in outrage and astonishment at Trump’s performance today, others of us are saying yeah, we told you so. He’s a stooge.
“I just have no words. As press in this room, we are all sitting in here speechless and stunned. Trump cast doubt over the U.S. intelligence community and endorsed Putinâ€™s denial. Trump was given an opportunity to denounce the meddling and he didnâ€™t; he just pivoted to lines about the missing server and Hillaryâ€™s emails. While Putin spoke forcefully, lying, Trump nodded along. Thereâ€™s no way of sugar coating or spinning this.”
Jonathan Chait,Â At Summit With Russia, Trump Betrays His Country in Plain Sight
Standing next to Vladimir Putin, after a meeting Putin had requested, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed the findings of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. He began by floating unfounded accusations that the FBI had ignored his opponentâ€™s misdeeds. Then he proceeded to express his doubts. â€œAll I can do is ask the question,â€ said Trump. â€œMy people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, they said they think itâ€™s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said itâ€™s not Russia. Iâ€™ll say this: I donâ€™t see any reason why itÂ wouldÂ be.â€
Trump told the world he trusts the denial of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin â€” the very man who did the deed! â€” over his own governmentâ€™s intelligence. Trump canâ€™t think of a reason why Putin would have interfered in the election. The fact that Russia has interfered in multiple elections, the fact its propaganda arm had broadcast its preference for Trump, the fact American intelligence concluded Russia intervened, that Robert Mueller has produced multiple indictments detailing evidence of this interference, all mean less to him than Putinâ€™s say-so. Putin admitted at this press conference he wanted Trump to win.
At the press conference hours later, Trump was asked whether he held â€œRussia at all accountableâ€ for tensions between Moscow and Washington â€” and if so, to specify what precisely he held Putin responsible for.
â€œWe have both made some mistakes,â€ Trump replied. But instead of naming a single, specific mistake that Russia had made (like, say, invading Crimea, or meddling in American and European elections, or, ostensibly, making a habit ofÂ launching botched assassination attemptsÂ with Soviet-era nerve agents on the streets of the United Kingdom), the president focused on the great mistake that America had made â€” when it chose to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
â€œThe probe is a disaster for our country,â€ Trump said. â€œI think itâ€™s kept us apart, itâ€™s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.â€
And yeah, Trump thinks this is a swell idea:
Trump went on to endorse Putinâ€™s idea for how that probe should operate going forward: Russian law enforcement would agree to interrogate the 12 Russians that Mueller had indicted â€” and allow members of his team to observe those interrogations â€”Â in exchangeÂ for the United States agreeing to interrogate American intelligence officials whom the Kremlin has accused of committing crimes against Russia (with Russian law enforcement in the room).
A question for each president; 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.
What — who — 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 warn him to never do it again?
TRUMP: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server — 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 Coates 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 — 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?Â 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.
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.
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. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK?
The DNC servers were never missing, and I would point out that whatever might have been in Hillary Clinton’s emails doesn’t excuse Trump’s failure to defend the United States.
When it comes to Republicans, weâ€™re faced with two related issues. First, there are members of their party who actively benefited from Russian manipulation of our election, and even sought out help that turned out to come from Russia, whether they fully understood it at the time. Second, much of the rest of their party is now arguingÂ thatÂ itâ€™s really no big dealÂ if the Russians manipulate American elections, so long as the GOP is the one that benefits.
And today we got the extraordinary spectacle of the president of the United States standing alongside the Russian dictator, saying he takes that dictator at his word and belittling the investigation into Russiaâ€™s attack on American democracy. Which led the former director of the CIA to tweet this:
Donald Trumpâ€™s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of â€œhigh crimes & misdemeanors.â€ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trumpâ€™s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
â€” John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Oh, and this happened yesterday:
A Russian woman with close ties to the National Rifle Association wasÂ arrested Sunday and chargedÂ with â€œconspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government,â€ according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.
Mariia Butina is accused of acting as an unregistered agent on Russiaâ€™s behalf between 2015 and 2017, in collaboration with â€œothers known and unknown, including an official of the Russian Federation,â€ according to the complaint.
Butina is a former assistant of Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian Central Bank who is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for channeling money to the NRA to benefit Trumpâ€™s 2016 campaign. The pair have been under scrutiny by journalists and investigators for months, thanks to aÂ bombshell January report in McClatchyÂ that first revealed the FBIâ€™s financial probe.
Butina and Torshin haveÂ close ties to the NRA, which is not named in the criminal complaint or supporting affidavit but is referred to as a â€œGun Rights Organization.â€
In putting all the detail into the indictment, Mueller was giving Russian intelligence a hint of how much America can see. But this public disclosure may mask much deeper capabilities â€” perhaps a capacity to expose many more layers of GRU military-intelligence operations and those by the Russian civilian spy services, the FSB and the SVR. American intelligence agencies rarely tip their hand this way by disclosing so much in an indictment; clearly they did so here to send messages.
Explains one former CIA officer: â€œGiven that we clearly had so much of the Russian internal communication and cyber footprints, they must be asking what else do we have? Do we have communications between the units and more senior officers in the GRU? With the General Staff? With the Kremlin? With Putin? Probably not the latter directly, but the Russians are very bureaucratic and itâ€™s hard for me to imagine there is not a clear trail of higher level approvals, progress reports, etc.â€
Fridayâ€™s indictment is a legal document. But itâ€™s also a shot across the Kremlinâ€™s bow. The message is: If you donâ€™t stop cyber-operations against the United States, we have the detailed information to identify and disrupt your intelligence services, officers, sources and methods. Mueller isnâ€™t asking Russia to stop; heâ€™s warning them of the consequences of going forward.
A lot of people have been assuming that Trump pooh-poohs allegations of Russian interference in the election because he fears it makes his administration seem illegitimate. After today I don’t see how anyone can assume that Trump wasn’t just plain compromised all along. Today was a big, fat, public quid pro quo.
Back to Ignatius:
The indictment also sends a message to President Trump and members of his entourage who are potential targets of Muellerâ€™s probe: Hereâ€™s a hint of what we know; how much are you willing to wager that we donâ€™t know a lot more about Russian contacts and collusion? For example, the indictment is a proffer of Muellerâ€™s information about contacts between GRU cut-out â€œGuccifer 2.0â€ and Roger Stone, Trumpâ€™s friend and adviser. What else does Mueller have? …
…Â And hereâ€™s a spooky final question: How much has the intelligence community told Trump about its operations against Russia? If you were one of the American intelligence officers who helped gather the information thatâ€™s included in Fridayâ€™s indictment, what would you think about the fact that Trump has asked for a private meeting first with Putin?
And, of course, we don’t know what Trump and Putin said to each other behind closed doors today.
See also Charles Pierce, The Crisis Is Upon Us.
Update: John McCain’s finest hour?
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released the following statement today on President Trumpâ€™s meeting and press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki:
â€œTodayâ€™s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trumpâ€™s naivetÃ©, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.
â€œPresident Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.
â€œIt is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout â€“ as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putinâ€™s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.
â€œComing close on the heels of President Trumpâ€™s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, todayâ€™s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.
â€œNo prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we areâ€”a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.â€