Five takeaways from Trump’s jaw-dropping performance with Putin

President Trump’s keenly anticipated summit on Monday in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin surpassed all expectations on newsworthiness.

Here are the main takeaways.

A jaw-dropper, even by Trump’s standards

Trump’s news conference with Putin was extraordinary, even by the standards of a president who has embraced chaos and controversy like no recent predecessor.

Trump made clear he does not accept the word of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. 

He also said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia — a perplexing assertion given the historically adversarial relationship between the two nations.

{mosads}American intelligence agencies have been adamant that such interference took place, and 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted on Friday. 

U.S. intelligence personnel “came to me and … they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki, astonishing observers across the political spectrum.

Trump was also asked whether he blamed Russia at all for the tense relations between the two countries. 

In response, he said he held “both countries responsible” — a moral equivalence that recalled his infamous equivocations about the violence instigated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago.

It is inconceivable that any other president of recent times would have behaved or spoken as Trump did in Helsinki. But will there be a political price to pay?

Republicans and outside allies join chorus of disapproval

Trump is so polarizing — loathed by Democrats but with rock-solid approval ratings among Republicans — that reactions to many controversies break along neat partisan lines.

This seems different. 

Republicans as well as sympathetic media outlets were deeply critical of the president.

Prominent GOP figures who are prone to jab at Trump were fiercer than usual. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called his conduct “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

A GOP strategist with ties to the White House told The Hill that the news conference was “really embarrassing to the United States” — even if voters’ attention might soon shift to other topics.

A former Trump administration official said by email that the summit had turned out to be “a major miscalculation by the president,” adding “you don’t achieve peace by bending over.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also distanced themselves from Trump.

At one point on Monday, The Drudge Report’s main headline — accompanied by an unflattering, off-balance photo of Trump — said that Putin had “dominated” the meeting. That’s bad news for a president who places such importance on the projection of strength.

In another eyebrow-raising response, Abby Huntsman — a Fox News Channel host and the daughter of Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman — tweeted, “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

A very good day for Putin

It’s hard to see how the summit could have gone better for the Russian president.

The tide was already flowing in Putin’s direction from earlier events on Trump’s trip, including his criticism of NATO allies and his description of the European Union as a “foe” during a weekend television interview.

On Monday, Trump congratulated Putin once again for Russia’s successful hosting of the soccer World Cup. He made no mention of sanctions on Russia or of the poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury earlier this year.

Administration officials often argue that actions speak louder than words when it comes to Trump and Russia. 

They highlight missile strikes on the government of Russian ally Bashar Assad in Syria, and the approval of lethal aid to Ukraine as prime examples of Washington standing up to the Kremlin.

But Putin has long been eager to sow transatlantic discord and ease his own nation’s isolation, which had deepened following the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Those objectives seem closer now than they were before Trump left Washington last week.

Any good news for Trump got lost

In their prepared remarks before the news conference careened off the rails, Trump and Putin outlined the areas in which they might be able to work together.

Nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism and Syria were among the topics cited.

Many foreign policy experts agree there could be some constructive engagement in these areas.

But the sensational nature of Trump’s comments means all of those issues will be utterly overshadowed.

All eyes on what’s next

The furor over Trump’s performance is so deep and so intense that it will dominate the news agenda for at least the next several days, absent some other cataclysm.

That’s grim news for Trump, given that he had been enjoying an uptick in his approval ratings, partly as a consequence of a very strong economy.

It is plausible that people within Trump’s national security apparatus could resign, as they were urged to do Monday by former CIA Director John Brennan.

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, could be tempted to quit. Just on Friday, Coats warned that “the warning lights are blinking red again” in relation to further cyberattacks.

After Trump name-checked him in Helsinki and gave at least equal weight to the Russian denial of election interference, Coats issued a statement reiterating: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

There could be other ramifications, too.

Could Trump’s performance accelerate the expected exit of chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general? 

Will the White House response to the outcry be seen as a baptism of fire for Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive who has recently become White House deputy chief of staff for communications?

Can Democrats make hay from Trump’s troubles?

Whatever happens, there is a startling degree of unanimity that the president just committed a major misstep. 

Tags Dan Coats Donald Trump Drudge Report John Brennan John Kelly John McCain Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Russia
See all Hill.TV See all Video