What the hell happened in Helsinki? After the spectacular debacle that was President Donald Trump’s Helsinki press conference at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side, America and the world are asking themselves this question.
Unfortunately, the more the White House and Trump try to walk back the fiasco, the deeper they dig their hole.
This is much more profound than just replacing one word for another, which Trump embarrassingly tried to do the day after the press conference. His excuse — that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would” when talking about whether Russia meddled in the U.S. election — would never be acceptable for any of our children, let alone the leader of the free world.
Then, the day after he tried to clean up whether he believes it would or wouldn’t be Russia meddling in our elections, a CBS reporter asked him if Russia is still interfering in our coming elections and Trump said, very clearly on tape, “No.” Twice.
Again, there was major blowback from the media, and his press secretary tried to claim that Trump was not answering the reporter’s question about Russia, when he clearly was doing just that.
This is outrageous on its face. The president of the United States says “no” to the question of Russia cyberattacks trying to influence the 2018 midterm elections — after Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE said very clearly that the “lights are blinking red,” signaling that Russia is messing with our cyber systems.
Then, to make matters worse, Trump’s spokeswoman lied to Americans about what Trump said, making the problem deeper and darker.
The question is, why? Why has President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE, since the campaign trail, been unwilling and unable to admit that Russia committed an act of cyberwar against the United States by hacking our democratic institutions?
Why has he been unwilling and unable to aggressively, publicly and personally hold Putin to account for Russia’s attacks on our democracy? Why was he so insistent on meeting with Putin alone, without any of his senior national security advisers present — which is unprecedented and senseless?
Trump defenders tie themselves up in knots trying to explain why the president does not go after Putin directly. "It’s because he wants to have a good relationship with Russia," they say.
"It’s because he wants to keep America safe," they say. "It’s because he wants Russia’s help on Syria, ISIS and other issues," they say. "Because he wants to do things differently."
The difficulty with all of those excuses is that he could be doing all of those things and still hold Putin and Russia accountable for the single most egregious act of cyberwar perpetrated against us.
Some more honest Trump defenders say the problem is that Trump cannot differentiate between Russia hacking our elections and the accusation that he is an illegitimate president because of it.
This, perhaps, is an honest reason — but I don’t believe it’s the only one. If Trump really thought that his presidency had nothing to do with what Russia did to our elections, then he would stand strong against Putin, embrace the Mueller investigation and tell the world that he is an open book and will help Mueller and all the intelligence agencies get to the bottom of what happened to ensure it never happens again.
I believe Trump thinks he is president today precisely because of Russian interference or, at least, partly because of it.
Moreover, his reluctance to admit Russia did anything wrong and his continued dismissal of the seriousness of the Mueller investigation undeniably cause his critics to wonder what else might he be afraid of and why, in the face of unequivocal evidence that Russia hacked us, he continues to deny it and espouse grossly misleading false-equivalencies between Russia and the United States.
Perhaps Trump really does not believe in American exceptionalism. He treats the U.S. as being equal to the totalitarian murderous regime of Russia. He prefers the world’s despots while insulting our NATO allies who have helped us forge the foundation of Western liberal democracies based on equality, justice and fair elections.
Perhaps the truth is even darker than that: Maybe Trump can never confront Putin and fully embrace the Mueller investigation because he is hiding something. What if Trump wanted to meet with Putin alone to thank him for swinging the 2016 election his way?
What if it was to plot Russian interference in the 2018 elections to help ensure Trump maintains Republican majorities in the House and Senate? What if they talked about plans for 2020?
Is this really that far-fetched? If none of the above could possibly be true, then Trump should have the Helsinki summit translator testify before Congress, release his tax returns and aggressively, unequivocally denounce Putin as the murderous human-rights abuser and cyber-warmonger that he is.
Since none of this will ever happen, it begs the question: Can the scenarios laid out above be true? Until we get answers, we will be plagued by what the hell happened in Helsinki — but, the November election, for Trump and GOP members of Congress, will be the worst hell of all.
Maria Cardona is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a Democratic strategist and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.