WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump stood side-by-side with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday before a phalanx of American and Russian flags as though they were old friends, in accord on major affairs and eager to sidestep messy distractions.
Perhaps that was the appropriate image to close a European tour in which the American president rattled friends and embraced an authoritarian adversary. A trip that was designed to display Trump as a bold leader on the world stage instead fueled questions about his judgment and shook the global alliances forged by the United States and its allies since World War II.
Trump’s praise for Putin – and his decision not to press some of the most divisive issues between the two nations, including Russian behavior in Crimea and Ukraine – stood in stark contrast to the combative way he treated traditional allies on his way to Helsinki, where the two men met. He disparaged British Prime Minister Theresa May, needled German Chancellor Angela Merkel and suggested the United States just might go it alone if NATO allies didn’t pony up more money for defense spending.
What made the news conference between Trump and Putin particularly jaw-dropping was this: Not only did Trump decline to denounce Russian meddling in the 2016 election, he sounded more inclined to believe Putin’s statement that Moscow didn’t interfere than the unanimous conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that it did.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was incredibly strong and powerful in his denial today,” he said, days after the Justice Department indicted a dozen Russian military intelligence officers on charges of cybercrimes intended to interfere in America’s democracy.
Critics called it a defining moment for the president, although that is a prediction they have made before in the aftermath of Trump’s most provocative comments.
In Washington, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who typically backs the president, issued an unusually direct statement. “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Putin’s denial was “a lie and should be recognized” as such by the president. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Putin was probably “having caviar” in celebration. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, was harsher: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he said.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, a reliable critic of Trump, raised the most ominous allegation against the president. “What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States?” Schumer asked. “Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”
Indeed, when asked by an American reporter, Putin didn’t directly deny that Moscow had compromising material on Trump or his family. He acknowledged that he wanted Trump to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Yes, I did,” he said through an interpreter, “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
Trump once again denounced as a “witch hunt” the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling, possible collusion and obstruction of justice. That inquiry continues, and the indictment it released Friday alleges in meticulous detail how Russian intelligence officers hacked the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign and others.
In foreign capitals, there was concern that Trump at the NATO summit, then in his meeting with Putin seemed to be moving toward the most fundamental reordering of U.S. global alliances by a president in modern times. In an interview Saturday, the president cited the European Union as a foe before even mentioning Russia and China. He withdrew his signature from the joint communique negotiated at the G-7 summit in Canada last month.
Just what sort of global infrastructure might replace or succeed these institutions isn’t clear, and it’s not apparent whether the president or his top aides have considered that question. In the wake of Trump’s roiling rhetoric at the NATO summit, some top officials scrambled to reassure allies that they can count on a continuing U.S. commitment. They noted, for instance, that in the end, Trump signed the communique that closed the meeting Thursday.
Then came Monday’s news conference, raising new questions about Trump’s intentions. Putin noted that the American president praised Russia for its hosting of the World Cup. He handed Trump a red-and-white soccer ball from the competition as a souvenir.
“I’ll give this ball to you,” Putin said with a smile, speaking in Russian, “and the ball is in your court.”