The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House had planned for Trump to take a more ” confrontational approach” at the press conference and that aides were astonished when the president chose a different route. But what, exactly, did White House staffers think was going to happen? What other way could a one-on-one press conference between Trump and Putin possibly have gone? Or to put it another way: Why all this outrage now?
The visual of Trump framed by American and Russian flags, standing alongside a smirking Putin and insisting that Russia had no involvement in his election, was a shocking one. It clarified and distilled into a single frame the president’s appalling lack of care toward an assault on the democratic life of the American people and his inability to carry out the duties of his office. As with his comments after the violence in Charlottesville, Trump’s obsequiousness toward Putin ripped away what remained of a very tattered fig leaf. Just as Charlottesville made it no longer quite so taboo to describe the president as sympathetic to white supremacy, perhaps Helsinki will allow mainstream commentators to more comfortably acknowledge the danger of the Trump presidency on the world stage.
Across the political spectrum, indignation over the Helsinki press conference has focused on Trump’s point-blank refusal to credit the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies on election interference over Putin’s “strong and powerful” denial. When asked by an American journalist who he believed, Trump responded: “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia … I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Coming from Trump, this is nothing new. Not only has he persistently referredto election interference as “the Russia hoax” and suggested that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee might have been carried out by “a 400-pound guy on a bed,” he’s also pointed directly to assurances by Putin to justify his denials. In July 2017, he tweeted that Putin had ” vehemently denied” any interference in a meeting between the two of them. In June 2018, he tweeted that ” Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! ” before going on to ask, “Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at?”
The president has previously denigrated the intelligence community’s joint conclusion on election meddling, too. He’s repeatedly pointed to what he identifies as the intelligence failures of the Iraq War to hint that the government’s assessment of Russian interference might not be accurate either. Speaking in July 2017, he suggested that the assessment carried less weight because it was the product of only “three or four” of the 17 intelligence agencies-ignoring the fact that the four agencies involved included the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA.