'Counter to the plan': Trump ignored advisers' advice over press conference with Vladimir Putin, White House insiders say

White House officials suggest Mr Trump is excited by the prospect of one-to-one meetings with autocrats like Mr Putin

Melania Trump, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump pose with a football after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki
Melania Trump, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump pose with a football after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki (AP)

President Trump's freewheeling Helsinki press conference in which he slated US intelligence agencies has handed Russian president Vladimir Putin a diplomatic triumph, White House officials are privately admitting.

Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Mr Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture towards Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity.

Trump’s remarks were “very much counter to the plan,” the staffer said.

“Everyone around Trump” was urging him to take a firm stance with Mr Putin, according to a second person familiar with the preparations.

Before Monday’s meeting, the second person said, advisers covered matters from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its interference in the US elections, but Mr Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.

“I think that the United States has been foolish,” Mr Trump said at one point, referring to tensions with Russia. “I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”

In the end, Mr Trump’s performance alongside Mr Putin in the Finnish capital seemed like a tour through his most controversial conspiracy theories, tweets and off-the-cuff musings on Russia — except he did it all while abroad, standing just feet from Mr Putin, the leader of one of America’s greatest geopolitical foes.

One explanation for Mr Trump's erratic performance is that he does not want to tarnish the validity of his shock victory in the 2016 presidential election by admitting Russian interference.

US late night hosts comment on Donald Trump meeting with Vladimir Putin

“The president has been more reluctant than most to weigh into the idea that Russia did it and they’re still doing it,” said South Carolina's Republican senator, Lindsey Graham. “He felt that would undermine his own election.”

A senior White House official disputed the idea that the president acted unilaterally, and said he had numerous sessions with senior administration officials preparing for the summit in addition to briefing materials.

Other White House officials suggest Mr Trump is actively excited by the prospect of one-to-one meetings with autocrats like Mr Putin - a stark contrast with his antipathy towards Nato leaders.

“He loved the summit with Kim Jong Un,” one official said, referring to the North Korean leader with whom Trump met last month in Singapore. “He thinks he can sit down eye to eye with these guys, flatter them and make a deal.”

Mr Trump’s remarks in Helsinki were met with widespread condemnation, including from many within his own party.

Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, put out a statement distancing himself from Trump and his comments. “The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers,” Mr Coats said in the statement.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

As Mr Trump flew back to Washington, he and his team struggled to quell the outcry.

“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” tweeted Newt Gingrich, a steadfast Trump ally and former Republican House speaker, whose wife Mr Trump appointed ambassador to the Vatican. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”

Mr Trump issued a tweet that seemed to backtrack slightly. “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’ ” he wrote. “However, I also recognize that to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear ­powers, we must get along!”

Washington Post

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