Trump and Putin in Helsinki: A Non-Summit

(Updated 25 July 2018) The most charitable thing that can be said of the Trump-Putin Summit Meeting in Helsinki on 16 July, is that it was the celebration of a non-summit, just like Alice in Wonderland’s non-birthdays.

Watch the highlights of this incredible moment in History, a “non-Summit” that sees an American President raging against his own country’s institutions while standing next to the leader of America’s historic enemy, Russia, whose avowed goal is to bring down Western democracies:

In the Video – As reported by the UK Guardian: Trump refused to back US intelligence agencies on their findings on Russian interference in the US presidential election. Trump declared the US and Russia’s relationship to be strong, while Putin dodged questions on rumored compromising material he held on Trump, and gave him a commemorative football . Trump condemned as treasonous after press conference with Putin. Most papers saw the Summit as a win for Putin: Trump portrayed as a “traitor” and  “Putin’s poodle”.The full text of the transcript is here.

Trump is putty in Putin’s hands. He wanted Putin to vow that he never meddled in American elections. Putin happily complied. That’s exactly what he wanted to say and has been saying all along. What a win for Putin!

The non-Summit had all the elements of fantasy: lots of handshakes, pats on the back and smiles; a two-hour, behind-doors, closed meeting, eye-to-eye with no interference from any Minister of Foreign Affairs (who needs them in the age of Trump?); a friendly lunch with all the aides ranked according to a strict protocol around a well-laid table (no tea kettles like in Alice’s world but close); long, serious discourses about peace and friendship prepared by each leader’s attendants to open the press conference that was to tell the world all the wonderful things they had agreed to.

Can a Non-Summit have a Positive Result?

The show fell apart when reporters asked questions. Trump began acting as if he were on Twitter, venting his usual obsessions, the Mueller probe, a witch hunt, no collusion, Hillary Clinton’s emails, where are they? Once again, he was on the defensive: “I beat Hillary Clinton easily … We won that race. And it’s a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it … We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.

This is the kind of thing you say privately, but surely not on the world stage. With Putin smiling and shaking his head, giving him support, offering him a football, saying “the ball is in your court”. As it indeed was. An own goal. With Trump, way over his head, ranting against some of America’s founding institutions, the Department of Justice and the FBI.

It is interesting to see how this happened. Putin gave his speech first, very sedate and serious, Trump followed suit in the same style. Up to that point, all well and good. Or perhaps not so good, because when you analyze their respective speeches, they actually said nothing, all the hot issues – Syria, Crimea –  were left unaddressed.

They agreed on nothing substantive, except to have more talks in future.

The most positive thing that can be said is that perhaps some new diplomatic channels are to be opened, but there are already plenty of open diplomatic channels. There is an ongoing coordination of a sort between the military of the two countries, though in Syria, when he feels like it, Trump bombs airports without warning the Russians.

Even on the question of collaboration in legal matters, there is an existing treaty, dating back to 1999, that regulates the matter – as Putin himself pointed out. When he offered to collaborate on the Mueller probe, Trump smiled happily – he felt he’d scored points on this one. But even that has to be understood in context. It would have to be give-and-take.

If American investigators were allowed to interrogate the 12 members of Russian military intelligence under accusation, Russian investigators would have to be likewise allowed in on matters of interest to Russia. He then ominously referred to associates of the American-born British financier Bill Browder. It is well known that Putin abhors Browder since he has successfully promoted in seven countries the adoption of laws punishing Russian oligarchs suspected of corruption, including the Magnitsky Act in the US.

In short, all show, no substance. A sad repeat of what happened in Singapore with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but much worse, with Trump ridiculing himself.

There was an unexpected follow-up to the summit in the form of an interview of Putin on Fox News (it looks like the preferred network of populist autocrats). The full interview is here – in which Putin denies “having dirt on Trump” and calls the meddling charges “ridiculous”. And here is a quick look at what went wrong during this interview:

CNN’s invitees are understandably deeply upset. For patriotic Americans, Trump’s behavior is a disgrace, supporting Putin’s version of events, saying “why would they interfere?” We all know why: Putin saw Clinton as his personal enemy because she had supported pro-democracy groups in Russia. 

Reactions: #treason?

Twitter became unusually violent. Both the hashtags #treason and #Putin went viral. Some choice pieces from the #treason one:

Looking beyond Twitter, the reaction in Washington was extraordinary, even among Republicans. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate armed services committee and former Republican presidential nominee, called the Summit “a tragic mistake”. He said it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” and that the “damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate”.

Senator Jeff Flake joined McCain in condemning Trump:

Surprisingly, the usually loyal House Speaker Paul Ryan and former House speaker Newt Gingrich also joined in. Here’s Gingrich’s tweet:

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was the loudest voice in support of Trump, going on  Fox News, calling the Mueller probe a witch hunt. Politico Magazine published his op-ed titled “Trump is Right to Meet Putin” in which he says: “I am thankful that Trump is once again willing to go against the political elite in Washington and keep the lines of communication to Moscow open.” Thankful for what? The lines of communications have never been shut down.  

The Hill reported Paul is headed for Russia to “pursue a constructive dialogue with Moscow”.  As if such dialogue did not take place and that Trump had obtained something new at this non-Summit. The US has always had very active diplomats and a full embassy in Moscow, even through the dark Stalin years and beyond.

Open dialogue with Russia is nothing new. And it didn’t wait for Trump to happen.

Predictably democrats all chimed in demanding action, and some got their tweets retweeted in the #Putin hashtag that has attracted 4 million hits over the last few hours – like this one from Bernie Sanders:

What next – A Sequel?

Back in Washington, Trump was quick to realize his blunder. He immediately issued a statement that he had “full faith” in U.S. intelligence agencies:

To make his point more credible, he simply reversed one of his most controversial statements in Helsinki (the one about seeing no reason why Russia would meddle in U.S. elections) saying what he meant was “wouldn’t” and not “would”.  Then, as usual, he was quick to put the blame on President Obama. Par for the course.

The next day, Wednesday, Trump was still at it, trying to mop up the disaster, reiterating in a CBS interview that he had warned Putin that the US would not tolerate meddling in elections: “I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” Worse, the White House acknowledged that when Putin asked for the possibility to interrogate former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow McFaul, Trump did not rule it out. Fortunately for McFaul, two days later, the US Senators ruled it out, voting 98-0 against it. Likewise, Browder appears safe from Russian demands.

But  news has come out that a sequel is planned. It seems Trump has invited Putin to the White House this fall, before the mid-term elections. A one-on-one meeting again? Another blunder? No, no, don’t bet on it. On 25 July, the news came out that Trump won’t meet Putin this fall – maybe next year…

Regardless of what Trump claims on Twitter (“a great success“), the Non-Summit was a historic blunder.

Yet no new fact has arisen to enable impeachment. Though something new did happen: never before has an American President given reason to question his patriotism. It has most Americans wondering – even if Trump’s base is still solidly supporting him (for them, it’s “fake news”). And the rest of the world is wondering too, stunned to see Trump is still fighting the ghost of a presidential election he won 18 months ago, instead of addressing pressing world issues with America’s historical adversary.

Did Trump actually cross a red line with his fellow Republicans?  Only time will tell.

Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of 

Featured Image Credit: Reuters.


About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).

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