LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Trump in Helsinki – Whom do you trust?

The public is well aware of the recent meeting that occurred between President Trump and President Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Although neither side came away with any substantial agreements, there were some unintentional fireworks at the press conference, which followed especially the final question posed specifically to President Trump over the credibility of intelligence findings of significant Russian interference (i.e. meddling, not collusion) during the 2016 presidential elections.

Trump’s response to the question drew sharp criticism from not only the media and Democrats (which was expected) but also deservedly from fellow Republicans, intelligence agencies and conservative commentators. Disregarding the hyperbole of some critics who equated POTUS’ statements with treason, what did Trump say that confused or alarmed his supporters requiring an immediate clarification of the messaging? Was the critical response justified? And was the POTUS statement merely an “honest” mistake or were other conflicting motives driving the response?

At the press conference which followed the meeting in Helsinki, the final questions directed toward Trump noted that intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, a charge which Putin firmly denied. The reporter then asked these questions to President Trump: 1)”Who do you believe” and 2) “With the whole world watching tell President Putin – would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him [Putin] to never do it again.”

Pragmatically, the second question could not be answered as stated since the response could provoke hostility from Putin (which would be counterproductive to the original intentions for the meeting). The best response Trump could have offered would have been to take blanket approach to the issue and indicate the U.S. intelligence agencies are taking steps to prevent future election interference from any foreign power.

Any confrontation about meddling should have taken place during the private face-to-face. Whether by design or by accident the president chose to ignore the second question (an acceptable and safe nonresponse).

But the president’s attempt to answer the question of whether Putin or our nations intel are to be believed was a complete and utter disaster. Sandwiched around several comments regarding the DNC server or the missing Clinton emails, Trump states “My people came to me. Dan Coates came to me and some others and 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…” And all this was said with Putin nearby, listening attentively to every word.

At face value, the statement seems to indicate that the Russians have no reason to meddle in U.S. affairs (i.e. the feds are lying, no such meddling occurred) and that Trump did not believe the intelligence agencies findings over the word of Putin. Until then, the press conference revelations were on a fast track to becoming yesterday’s news. But the implications of this bombshell remark obliterated all previous statements, providing fodder for the president’s opponents/detractors as well as concern, confusion and consternation on the part of Republicans and supporters who scrambled to explain or dispute the comment.

And the optics of this “admission” could not have been more damaging to the president, who was seen as weak, overly deferential, incompetent, overmatched, duped, disloyal, ignorant and possibly compromised (after all Putin does know a thing or two about “dossiers”).

The fallout from the president’s comment was immediate. Some critics argued that Trump’s response was treasonous while others hinted that Trump was Putin’s puppet. Conservative pundits and congressional Republican leaders insisted that the evidence of Russian interference during the 2016 election was conclusive and verifiable (i.e. not ‘trumped’ up). Uncharacteristically, Trump didn’t respond with a tweet within an hour of the controversy but waited until the next day to respond to address and correct the issue. Early resolution would have mitigated much of the negative blowback from the media. But by then, the media was in a full feeding frenzy. It was too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

There are several possible explanations for the president’s verbal miscue. It’s possible that Trump simply made a verbal gaff. The official White House explanation was that Trump meant to say “wouldn’t” but instead said “would” because he was confused about the use of a double negative in the same sentence (I don’t see why it wouldn’t…).

This explanation seemed to placate his supporters, the Republican establishment and conservative commentators. But within the context of the statement, “would” only makes sense unless the president is fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. throw Momma from the train a kiss). If Trump intended to use “wouldn’t” he should have used it after the former (… they think it’s Russia”) rather than the latter (“He just said it’s not Russia”) statement. This clarification may simply be damage control. And it doesn’t help Trump’s case to imply that he can’t really be certain about Russian meddling until the DNC turns over their server.

A more likely possibility is the president was apprehensive that any admission of Russian meddling (not to be confused with collusion) would somehow erroneously undercut the legitimacy of his election as POTUS. Trump’s answer clearly leaves speculation that his position on Russian interference is derived from communication with “my people” and “Dan Coates” and not necessarily a heartfelt conviction of his own despite expressing great confidence in the intelligence personnel.

It’s also possible that Trump in his eagerness to establish rapport with his Soviet counterpart deliberately avoided a direct confrontation on this subject since Putin had preemptively denied its existence. Unfortunately, Putin probably interpreted Trump’s response (without the use of an interpreter) as the product of weakness or intimidation instead of mutual respect while American viewers wondered if Putin had some leverage on the POTUS to keep him in check.

Hopefully the president learns from the verbal blunders of this meeting. There is no substitute for experience in the international realm. Expectations that the novice Trump could compete on equal footing one-to-one with his seasoned counterpart are unrealistic unless the president’s advisers accompany him to the meetings. The post-Helsinki debriefing should address mistakes made during the meetings which would benefit the president in future negotiations.

There can be no basis for a meaningful change in the U.S.-Russian relations if the participants are unwilling to honestly deal with the issues and move toward resolution and Putin is clearly in denial on this specific accusation. And straight talk is more conducive to positive results than hard rhetoric although the latter plus sanctions is necessary to keep Putin in check for now.

Ironically, Trump could have addressed this issue by quoting Putin’s own comment verbatim made earlier during the press conference. When asked if he believed Putin, Trump could have said “as to who is to be believed, who is not to be believed: you can trust no one” followed by I’m sure President Putin would agree with this statement. There’s no denying that! The truth is a sword that cuts both ways.

Edgar Cox

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