Trump-Putin meeting: Republicans turn on 'disgraceful' president after he sides with Russian leader over election meddling

Figures across political spectrum lambast Trump as 'treasonous' as he declines to back US intelligence agencies during landmark Helsinki summit

Oliver Carroll
,Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 17 July 2018 09:23 BST
Trump dodges question on Russian meddling in US election in 2016

Donald Trump went into his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin looking to change the relationship between Moscow and Washington. But instead he sparked outrage at home by accepting the Russian leader's denial that the Kremlin meddled in the US presidential election despite reports to the contrary from his own nation's intelligence services.

Mr Trump said that Mr Putin had issued a “strong, impressive denial” and he saw "no reason" why Russia should be involved. The president appeared aware it would not sit well - having been asked directly at a press conference to warn Mr Putin against interfering in US elections - but said he would risk anything to go his own way. “Nothing would be easier than to refuse to meet,” he said.

Mr Putin, too, came clean. Yes, he had willed Mr Trump to the presidency in 2016 — it was, he said, the “best hope for a normalisation of relations”.

In Washington, the condemnation came thick and fast. Former CIA director John Brennan called Mr Trump's actions "treasonous", while Republican Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

The Arizona Republican said the summit with Mr Putin in Helsinki was “a tragic mistake”.

The senator said Mr Trump proved not only unable but “unwilling to stand up to Putin”. The two men “seemed to be speaking from the same script” as Mr Trump made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant”, he said.

Mr McCain is a well-known Trump critic, and the reaction from him and from House and Senate Democrats was to be expected - words like "weak" and "disgraceful" were used. But the disapproval also came from unexpected places, like Republican House leader Paul Ryan.

"There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world... The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy," Mr Ryan said.

Putin says he had to tell Trump several times that he did not interfere in US election

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats added: "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."

Mr Trump sought to defend himself, tweeting that he has "GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people". However, the president made clear he would continue to push for Washington and Moscow to "get along".

"I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past," Mr Trump wrote. "As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!"

The summit in Finland was the first and long-awaited head-to-head meeting of two of the world’s most powerful men; men frequently mentioned in the same breath, in Mr Trump's words, as both allies and competitors. Since Mr Trump came to power, their relationship has defied the usual rules. While relations between their countries have "never been worse" according to the White House, they have continued to talk about each other fondly.

Helsinki represented the chance to put meat on that relationship. It did not take long for the games to begin.

Mr Putin arrived late, perhaps half an hour behind the unofficial schedules. But that, by his normal standards, was almost a show of respect. He was met on the tarmac by the new Russian presidential limousine, the Kortezh, the Kremlin’s answer to the American “Beast,” and travelled by extended convoy to the Finnish presidential palace, the venue of the talks. Here, Donald Trump managed to have the last say. He arrived at the palace a full 15 minutes after Mr Putin. Call it a draw, but who was counting?

The meeting started awkwardly. With President Trump staring blankly into the camera, he congratulated President Putin on organising “one of the best World Cups in history.” He said he wanted the US to “get along with Russia". But he barely offered eye contact to anyone but the cameraman.

Mr Putin nodded back, while appearing somewhat bored, somewhat irritated.

Things did improve. There was an unusual, unstructured one-to-one meeting, which was initially scheduled for 90 minutes. The meeting overran by 40 minutes — allowing for “chemistry” to develop between the leaders, Kremlin official Yuri Ushakov told journalists. Mr Trump described it as a “very good start.” Then, the meeting was extended to include advisers.

Ahead of the meeting both sides emphasised low expectations. Russian state media held a line that the very fact there had been a summit was an achievement — no doubt true, given the Kremlin's post-Crimean isolation. On the American side, the Ambassador to Russia, John Huntsman, even tried to rename the talks. This was not a summit, he insisted, but a “meeting.” There would be “no state dinner, no deliverables, no joint statement,” he told US television.

When the two men emerged at a news conference, both said they were satisfied with the results. The relationship had never been worse before they met, said Mr Trump — “but that changed four hours ago”. Mr Putin was never quite as effusive. There could never be total trust, he said, cryptically: “As for who to believe, who you can’t believe, can you believe at all... you can’t believe anyone. It isn’t that Trump believes me or I believe Trump. We have coinciding interests.”

The joint appearance was dominated by Mr Putin, with Mr Trump apparently sticking close to a script. And it was the Russian leader who offered the clearest glimpses of what was discussed. There was “agreement” on the importance of Israeli security, he said, suggesting a serious discussion about Iranian troops in southern Syria. There was talk of a new “dialogue” on nuclear proliferation, with a list of Kremlin proposals passed to the White House.

Other than that — predictably — there was no breakthrough on the contentious issues. There was no mention of sanctions and only passing mention of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s adviser on Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov, does not even appear to have taken part in the talks.

Mr Trump, who had initiated the summit, needed a big announcement and a strong performance. It was debatable whether he got it.

“This was not the assertive Trump we saw with Nato or Britain,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert considered close to the Kremlin, referring to Mr Trump's previous stops on his European visit.

“Putin led, Trump followed. And that revelation is likely to cause a tsunami in the United States.”

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