Donald Trump preferred the “powerful denial” of Vladimir Putin to the word of the entire US intelligence community and called his own nation “foolish” over allegations of Russia’s collusion in the 2016 presidential vote.
No collusion occurred on the Kremlin’s part in the election that propelled the maverick business tycoon to the presidency, Trump said on Monday after four hours of talks with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki, Finland.
“The main thing – we discussed it also – is zero collusion,” Trump, standing alongside a nodding Putin, said. “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.
“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish.”
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! #HELSINKI2018
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
Trump’s strange, inexplicable predilection towards Russia made him look weak, gullible, and isolated from his own administration, America’s political establishment, and traditional political allies, analysts say.
“It was nothing short of treasonous,” John O Brennan, a former CIA director fired by Trump in 2017, said in a tweet. “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
The summit concluded Trump’s tumultuous, week-long tour of the continent marked by disagreements with European leaders, divisions within NATO, and anti-Trump protests in the United Kingdom.
He went ahead with the talks despite last Friday’s sweeping indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers over the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election and calls to cancel the summit.
Putin unexpectedly offered his help in no less than interrogating the suspected officers with representatives of special counsel Robert S Mueller III, who heads the probe into the alleged collusion.
“We can make one more step forward – we can let official US representatives, including the representatives of Mr Mueller’s commission, to be present at these interrogations,” Putin said.
Unsurprisingly, the summit’s outcomes are seen in Russia as triumphant.
“The Cold War is over,” Alexey Mukhin, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“A US president declared Cold War 2.0 on Russia and a US president is cancelling it,” he said, referring to the cooling of Russia-US ties under former president Barack Obama.
“A hand brake was on and now it’s been unblocked,” Sergei Strokan, a Moscow-based analyst and columnist with the Kommersant daily, told Al Jazeera.
In fact, some political pundits in Russia predicted the outcome.
“Trump can’t and won’t hold talks from the position of power, it’s a doomed idea,” Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov tweeted Monday, just hours before the talks.
Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, notorious for his carefully phrased “diplomatese”, did not spare superlatives about the summit’s results.
“Better than super,” he said in televised remarks. “Magnificent.”
It’s hard to imagine politicians with more different backgrounds.
Putin is a former KGB agent who was handpicked by ailing Russian president Boris Yeltsin and turned Russia’s nascent democracy into an increasingly authoritarian resurrection of Soviet and czarist political trends.
He does not own a mobile phone, has a poker-face countenance, and values old friends and KGB colleagues who are now top government officials or billionaire oligarchs.
Trump is a tycoon with a penchant for self-centred showmanship whose businesses went bankrupt six times and who had zero experience in public service.
He prefers social media and television to any other forms of delivering his message, contradicts or confronts his own advisers, and takes unpredictable, spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment steps.
But what unites them is their persistent drive to erode the post-Cold War world order by dividing their political enemies, sowing discord among friends – both domestic and international – and walking away from decades-long alliances for the sake of immediate political gains.
Both consider independent media enemies and cut political Gordian knots with authoritarian, iron-fisted decisions.
Trump more than once expressed his admiration for Putin – and said he hoped they would get along. “I hope we have a fantastic relationship,” he said in May 2017.
After Trump’s election in November 2016, Russia briefly reveled in Trumpomania.
Moscow’s anti-liberal and neoconservative ideology echoed Trump’s isolationist “America First” agenda.
His admiration of Putin revived hopes the United States will accept Russia as an equal superpower – something Moscow longed for after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
And, of course, there was the Crimea conundrum that loomed large over the summit.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine boosted Putin’s approval ratings to almost 90 percent. The jewel in the crown of Russian czars “returned to motherland” after a referendum, Putin proclaimed, and Russians were jubilant.
But the West imposed crippling economic sanctions and expelled Russia out of the G-8, an elite group of industrialised nations that included the US, Germany and France. Putin faced increasing international isolation as Russia sank into recession.
Trump has been vague about Crimea. He said in June that Crimea is “Russian” because everybody speaks Russian there.
But on Monday, answering a question about his possible recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, he said elusively, “We’ll see what happens.”
And he did not say anything – leaving the floor to Putin.
“We conducted a referendum in strict accordance with international law with the United Nations chapter,” said Putin. “For us, for the Russian Federation, the issue is solved.”
Trump’s silence on Crimea was a letdown for Ukraine, a fiercely pro-Western nation that wants to join NATO and the European Union. But it wasn’t unexpected.
“I am not surprised,” Igor Solovey, a Ukrainian political analyst and editor of the Lb.ua magazine, told Al Jazeera. “One could not expect an exacerbation considering the complexity of problems between Russia and the USA.”