by Joseph Braude*
One day after a controversial July 16 public appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to retract a statement he had made by Putin’s side rejecting U.S. intelligence reports that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections.
The turnaround capped a 24-hour torrent of criticism in the United States following Trump’s initial comments. In addition to Democratic opposition voices, liberal-leaning media, and Republicans opposed to the Trump presidency, criticism also arrived from some leading Republican figures and conservative media that had generally supported Trump.
The setting of the initial comments — the Trump-Putin summit — had been an effort to improve relations between the two powers strained by war in Syria, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and a U.S. Government determination that Moscow sought to manipulate the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. Shortly before the summit convened, the U.S. special counsel tasked with investigating the alleged election interference indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges of hacking the Clinton presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee.
In response to reporters’ questions as to whether Trump accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia did in fact hack the elections, Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]. … They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. … President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Challenged to name any actions for which Putin should be held accountable, Trump declined to do so, instead castigating the U.S. special counsel’s investigation, Democrats, and liberal media.
Among prominent Democrats who condemned the President for his statements, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said, “In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an American adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin. “For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous and weak. The president is putting himself over our country. … 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.”
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an outspoken critic of the President’s, shared similar sentiments: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake … No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
More surprising were statements of denunciation from Mr. Trump’s supporters. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also a Republican, Tweeted, “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for its part, dubbed the news conference “a personal and national embarrassment,” and said the President had “projected weakness.”
In response, on July 17, during an appearance in the White House Cabinet Room, Trump read a prepared statement to journalists. While repeating his familiar assertion that there had been no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, he said, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place.” He then ad-libbed an additional observation: “It could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” With respect to remarks the previous day, he explained, “In a key sentence … I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’”
President Trump did find some support at Breitbart, the rightwing online news site which championed his campaign. Columnist Joel Pollak argued that the summit was a foreign policy victory for Washington: “Putin complained about the U.S. pulling out of the Iran deal, but he was quiet about reports that the U.S. had killed hundreds of Russian military contractors in Syria (without losing a single American). Putin also said nothing about U.S. airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. He dared not complain. That is because, far from being weak, Trump has been tougher than his predecessors toward Russia, letting his actions speak louder than his words.”
But a more widely held view was expressed by former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, himself a Republican: “It may be premature to assert that Donald Trump, America’s wrecker in chief, is determined to undermine the Western alliance. Yet his behavior throughout his European visit points in that direction. Should he succeed, he will have accomplished what Putin and his Soviet predecessors could only have hoped for in the wildest of their dreams.”