The president insulted the intelligence of his officials – and the American people
Russia did not win the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Going into the tournament, it was the lowest ranked of the 32 nations represented. As it was, after a series of encounters in which the team displayed discipline and flair under head coach Stanislav Cherchesov that surprised many, they made it to the quarter-finals, only to lose to Croatia after extra time and penalties.
But if Vladimir Putin already had plenty to smile about given his team’s better-than-expected performance, and Russia’s organisation of a tournament which was widely praised, in Helsinki on Monday he received a prize he may have treasured even more than if his team had won the 18 carat gold World Cup Trophy.
At a press conference with Donald Trump following their first formal bi-lateral summit, Putin stood and watched as the US president told the world he trusted the word of the Russian leader as much as that of his own intelligence chief.
A week after berating Nato allies in Brussels, undermining British prime minister Theresa May’s position on Brexit and angering sticklers on royal protocol by walking in front of the Queen, Trump was asked whether he accepted the assessment of his intelligence community that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.
“All I can do is ask the question – my people came to me, Dan Coats [the Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” he said.
“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 want to see the server but, I have confidence in both parties.”
Earlier he had said: “The world wants to see us get along. I think we’ll end up having an extraordinary relationship.”
For his part, Putin had said: “[Trump] touched upon the theme of Russia’s so-called meddling [in the 2016 US election]. I had to repeat what I’ve said before, that the Russian state has never interfered and has no intention to interfere.”
Trump was not wrong to go to Helsinki, despite the views of the majority of the foreign policy establishment in Washington.
He was not wrong to reach out to Putin. He was not wrong to say it would be better for the world if the two most heavily-armed nuclear powers had a better relationship. He was not wrong to say Russia should be part of the G8.
Likewise, he is correct to say, as he reportedly privately does that the US has for decades interfered in the elections of plenty of other countries. He is also correct to say, that US intelligence has previously got plenty of things wrong.
It is also obvious why Trump is keen to play down any impact Russia’s alleged interference in the election may have had. Having lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by three million votes, and only scraped the electoral college victory by an odd 70,000 votes scattered across Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, it is understandable he wants to try and stress he won as a result of his own prowess.
But nobody benefited from what happened in Helsinki, other that Vladimir Putin.
Trump insulted his own government officials, the people tasked with keeping the nation safe (and protecting the sanctity of its elections) and moreover he insulted the intelligence of the American people.
In January 2017, the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, issued a report saying they had “high confidence” Russia interfered in the election.
Eighteen months later, with Special Counsel Robert Mueller having now brought indictments about more than two dozen Russians for their alleged role in 2016’s interference, it is hard to believe Moscow did not at least try and influence the election. (Whether they had any genuine impact is another matter, and one that may never be answered.)
But by failing to stand up to an authoritarian leader accused of serious offences – Russia has denied being involved in the nerve agent attacks in the UK – especially after having acted like a bullying blowhard in front of his allies, Trump appeared like nothing more than a coward.
If he was not prepared for this encounter, if he was not willing to put in the preparation that would have provided him with intelligent, serviceable answers when confronted with questions he must have known were coming, he should not have gone. As it is, for now, Putin 1 – 0 Trump.