In a most unusual Trump/Putin media conference in Helsinki it seemed that the notably absent participant was Robert Mueller.
Since Trump’s inauguration, we have all faced the continuing question of what will he tear down next, to distract attention from his clear unfitness for and, what is widely suspected to be his illegitimacy in the conduct of, his office: the US Constitution; international cooperation, where it has been established, such as in the Iran nuclear agreement and, the institutions of the EU; NATO; the so called “rules-based order”, under which international affairs have been largely conducted, for the past 70 years.
We know that Trump is destructive of the truth of any matter in which he has an interest, but is not currently suiting him; but, at Helsinki, a new element was vividly displayed: Trump’s conviction that he may rely, for his survival, on Vladimir Putin’s lies about Russia’s conduct designed to influence the US elections.
We can only guess at what may be the basis for Putin’s extraordinary grip on Trump, which, indeed, he seems to enjoy.
The key to understanding what in fact occurred at Helsinki, was Trump’s disturbed rant during his media conference with Putin, about his victory in the 2016 election and, his continuing obsession with Hilary Clinton.
This displayed, vividly, his ludicrously fragile psychology, (almost to the point where he seems not to have internalized that he won the election), his insatiable vanity, and his gut motivation for the meeting with Putin: he wants Putin to validate his being in the presidency and to neuter Special Counsel, Robert Mueller’s investigation of him and his past relationship with Russian entities.
It showed admirable self discipline that Putin managed to keep a straight face when in the midst of a media conference about their meeting, supposedly on major international issues, Trump chose to rage against his domestic political enemies and, the media who are “the enemy of the people”. No hint that the cat got the cream here.
It needs to be noted that Trump’s senior advisors argued strenuously against Trump doing exactly what he chose to do, in Helsinki, on the Russian interference issue.
Following Mueller’s indictment of a dozen Russian intelligence officers, a few days earlier, that staff reportedly recommended, as late as when they were at the Trump golf course in Turnberry, that the Helsinki meeting be cancelled.
That they lost this argument tells its own story about Trump’s goals for the meeting, it being also leaked that Trump apparently paid scant, if any attention, to the notes that had been given to him on substantive international issues
The Summit meeting was explained as having been planned to deal with both the need to bring about a correction in the overall relationship between the US and Russia and, to address the a range of major issues in international affairs, in which they are both active.
We learned at the media conference, that nothing of substance on those issues was agreed upon. Some of them were listed as having been on the agenda, although by no means completely but, there was agreement to keep on talking, in the future.
It would be churlish to fail to recognize that the US/Russia relationship could benefit from a positive correction and that it could be helpful if continuing dialogue could be established between the two on truly dangerous and destructive issues, such as: those in the Middle East; with respect to the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and, refugees and migration.
But it appeared from what was said and not said in their media conference, that such an agenda was more than somewhat shoved aside by Trump’s focus on himself and his determination to escape the consequences of the major investigation, now apparently nearing conclusion, of his conduct: in the political sphere, particularly with respect to the 2016 elections; but, it should not be forgotten, also in the commercial and personal sphere’s; and, including relevant conduct by members of his family and his hired help, mainly of lawyers.
At Helsinki, Trump accepted publicly, for the second time but this time even more emphatically, Putin’s denial that Russia in any way interfered in the 2016 election. This has caused outrage in the US and elsewhere, because facts about that interference have now been further established, since Trump’s last denial; and, apparently there are more to come.
There is astonishment within the US on all sides of politics and the media, including very interestingly, at least in some measure, in Trump’s “State Media” (Fox), that Trump’s acceptance of Putin’s assurances amounted to his rejection of the unanimous and unambiguous findings of the US intelligence community. The ubiquitous headline in the US and elsewhere, has been to the effect: “Trump chooses Putin over Intelligence Agencies”.
Outrage has now been expressed, including from within senior Republican sources and not just by the known opponents of Trump such as Senator McCain. Interestingly, former Speaker Gingrich has demanded that Trump correct the serious mistake he has made.
But truly, what else is new? Trump has lied repeatedly, publicly, about virtually every issue he has touched and those senior Republicans have turned a blind eye to the corrosive effect of this upon so much of the system in America, because they could see short term political advantage to them in not resisting Trump. They’ve made a Faustian bargain with him, which with the richest of irony, may now need to be undone because Vladimir Putin has been revealed as the real Mephistopheles.
Let this be plainly called- out, for what it is: Russo-phobia. It has a mighty history in the US and cannot be denied. No one really cares about the principle of rejecting external interference in US politics. Such interference is encouraged and welcomed, for example, from Israel and its agents.
Mention was made in Helsinki of the fact that the US and Russia are nuclear weapon states and that, as such, they have special responsibilities. Israel is a significant , clandestine, nuclear weapon state. Its status as such is fervently protected by the US. And, Netanyahu was warmly received in Moscow for talks with Putin last week.
At Helsinki, did Trump and Putin discuss the problems posed by Israel and, the not unrelated problems posed by Iran and Trump’s walk- out of the Iran nuclear agreement?
Maybe they did. But we wouldn’t know from any of the briefings given subsequently. All the oxygen went to Trump’s need to be found not guilty of any relationship with the Russians of a kind that would play badly within the US’ polity and its need for a clear cut mortal enemy. They seem to miss Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire”.
On the extraction of all the oxygen, it would be a serious omission to fail to note other aspects of Trump’s progress during the last week around northern Europe. Edward Luce, in the Financial Times, described Trump’s visits to Brussels and London etc. as “Five Days of Diplomatic Carnage”.
The reason for this, in my estimation, is that “America First” is not remotely a foreign policy worth its salt and, Trump’s habit of misrepresenting reality, whether about tariffs or rates of contribution to an Alliance, is not a credible medium of diplomatic exchange.
Richard Butler AC former: Ambassador to the United Nations, New York, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.