His first friend, his enemy… Trump’s relationship with Putin is trickier than ever after the Helsinki summit.
By Abby White
President Donald Trump earned criticism across the political spectrum after his press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, July 17 following their summit in Helsinki. During the press conference, Trump heaped praise upon Putin, an authoritarian leader known for his human rights violations, homophobic policies and sexist views, who has concentrated power in his presidency since he took office in 1999.
Both Democrats and Republicans immediately castigated Trump for siding with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies during the press conference. Agencies including the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and the NSA concluded in January 2017 that Putin had ordered Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
However, Putin has refuted those allegations, and Trump maintained his confidence in the Russian president in Helsinki. “My people . . . think it’s Russia [who meddled]. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump told reporters. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The next day, pressure from even Trump’s staunchest allies forced him to walk back his statement. The president claimed he had misspoken during the press conference: he had meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.” However, his personal conviction on Russian involvement remains unclear.
Putin has not yet responded to Trump’s shift. He and Trump may discuss the alleged election meddling again this fall, during a visit to Washington to which Trump invited Putin just three days after the Helsinki summit. The invitation blindsided Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who responded, “Say that again?” when informed in the middle of an interview by NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell.
The invitation, so soon after the summit and press conference, represents an unqualified win for Putin. Although he did not gain any concessions from the U.S. in Helsinki, Trump’s praise effectively signaled the Russian president’s “welcome back [into] the club of global leaders,” according to the New York Times, despite European countries’ longtime reluctance.
A string of Trump officials, including Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Director of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, spoke out against Russia’s election interference July 19 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, the same day Trump invited Putin in the White House. Rosenstein called Russia’s 2016 election meddling “just one tree in a growing forest.”
“These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,” Rosenstein said.
One week after the Helsinki summit, Trump has yet to criticize Putin directly.
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