It was like nothing anybody had ever seen. Nobody acquainted with Donald Trump expected the July 16 Helsinki summit—which wasn’t really a summit, more like a one-on-one-date between the presidents of Russia and the United States, to use the reality TV lingo which created the current Trump persona—to yield anything of substance, diplomatically speaking. Our president, after all, doesn’t do substance.
Yet substance of a sort arrived, inadvertently, in the presser which followed the presidential meeting, which went on for nearly two hours. What was said behind closed doors? Only the two presidents and their translators know (as do Russian intelligence and whatever other spy services bugged the room) but it’s a safe bet, knowing Trump and his manic indiscipline, that the press event reflected the summit’s secret content. By which I mean the American president submissively kowtowing to his Russian counterpart in a fashion which no American president has ever done before.
That presser will go down in the record books and will be discussed and dissected by historians and pundits as long as Donald Trump is remembered. It was frankly an outrage for anyone who cares about America and the West and our shared values, which are under attack by Vladimir Putin, who has unleashed his powerful spy agencies, spreading spies, hackers, and lies to undermine our democracies—and none more than America’s in 2016.
None of that was in evidence in Helsinki, however, and before the cameras the American president opted not to fudge inevitably awkward questions—after all, it’s a tricky visual when Trump’s standing right next to the guy whose spies stand accused by Trump’s own Justice Department of hacking and smearing Trump’s 2016 election opponents—rather to take the Russian point of view, whole-hog. While any savvy observer expected Trump to deliver his usual “Why can’t we just be friends with Russia?” platitudes, the president’s performance went well beyond banal pro-Kremlin utterances.
Trump whined at length about the Robert Mueller-led Special Counsel investigation (which he repeatedly termed “ridiculous”) into his ties to the man a few feet away from him at the opposite podium: “As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics or the media or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct … I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.”
Per his custom, Trump made clear that, morally speaking, America is in no position to judge Russia: “I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time frankly before I got to office. I think we’re all to blame.” That Trump uttered this just a day before the fourth anniversary of the Russian military’s shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 innocents, made this especially repulsive.
When asked point blank if he accepts the verdict of his own Intelligence Community that Putin’s meddled in our 2016 election, Trump sided with the Russians in a manner which made clear where he thinks the blame lies—and it’s not in Moscow: “It came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win … here was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign.”
Trump then diverted into a conspiratorial word-salad which embraced the full range of kook-right theories about the “real” 2016 election scandal, which involved Hillary Clinton, missing email servers, and related fantasies which are normally relegated to the tinfoil set, but which were elaborated on live TV by the American president. Trump made his position perfectly clear on the Intelligence Community’s assessment: “My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server.”
When offered the opportunity to state, for the record, how he feels about the IC’s unanimous finding that Kremlin spies meddled in his election, Trump did not obfuscate, he did not meander: he made abundantly clear that he considers the word of the Kremlin boss, the man who meddled in our 2016 election, to be as valid as the assessment of our vast, highly informed, 16-agency Intelligence Community.
Adding insult to injury, Trump brushed off the sensational news story which broke on Friday, that the Mueller inquiry indicted 12 named Russian officials for their role in the hacking and smearing of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016, to Trump’s advantage. Although it had long been obvious that Kremlin spies were behind this crime, it’s a big deal when the Justice Department publicly points the finger at Russian military intelligence, or GRU, as the culprit. Predictably, Trump in Helsinki pretended to have barely heard of this bombshell: “Every time you hear all of these 12 and 14—it’s stuff that has nothing to do—and frankly, they admit, these are not people involved in the campaign.”
Robert Mueller will be the judge of that, and it’s no secret in Washington that his investigators are looking closely at which members of Team Trump, above all the president’s longtime pal and self-proclaimed “ratf*cker” Roger Stone, parlayed with GRU officials in 2016 to conspire against Democrats. President Trump’s laughable denials and obfuscations have failed to throw the Muller inquiry off the tracks to date, and they’re unlikely to start working now.
Especially now, after Helsinki, when Trump’s mask finally dropped completely, before the cameras and the world. The key question, long asked by this columnist, regarding why exactly Donald Trump is so submissive to the Kremlin, is now appearing in the mainstream media. As it should, indeed it should have long ago. Anybody with open eyes and an understanding of Putin’s Kremlin knew two or more years ago, long before Trump was elected president, that his longstanding ties to Russia, official and unofficial, were strange to the point of meriting serious investigation. The MSM, with precious few exceptions, frankly punted on that inquiry. Better late than never, per the shopworn cliché.
Reaction to Trump’s Helsinki debacle, where he exploded his own presidency, has been predictably furious among Democrats, while intelligence professionals are only slightly less animated. Former CIA director John Brennan’s tweet stating that Trump’s Finnish roadshow “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.” caused a stir among Republicans, but was not controversial among retired spy-bosses, some of whom said pretty much the same thing, while omitting the loaded “t-word.”
For their part, Republicans seemed stunned by the Helsinki disaster, and even Trump’s habitual defenders in Congress backed away from the president, characterizing his conduct as indefensible. A good bellwether is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker turned Fox News talking head. Despite being an early backer of Trump’s candidacy, and a stalwart defender of this increasingly beleaguered White House, Gingrich, too, turned his back on Trump, tweeting, “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.”
That hasn’t happened yet and knowing Trump it never will. The president has backed himself into a Kremlin-hued corner now, on live TV, and no obvious exits present themselves. Americans are not accustomed to seeing their commander-in-chief attack our allies while publicly hamming it up with foreign dictators who hate us, while using a foreign venue to attack fellow Americans. There is no precedent for any of this, in all our republic’s history, and Donald Trump, who rode to the White House with a mask of invincibility, has finally gone too far. By publicly siding with the Kremlin, he effectively ended his presidency in Helsinki.
Not that anyone should expect Republicans in Congress to draw the proper conclusion—that our president is fatally compromised by his clandestine ties to Moscow, which demand explanation—and commence articles of impeachment. They remain more terrified of being attacked by Trump on Twitter than they are of being associated with his increasingly outrageous conduct. Until that changes, Donald Trump will remain in the White House.
Robert Mueller may well change that, sooner rather than later, and why so many Republicans remain sheepish about confronting Trump was perhaps explained by yesterday’s other Russia-related news bombshell. That was the Justice Department’s announcement, exquisitely timed right on the heels of Trump’s Helsinki implosion, of the arrest of a Russian national on charges of conspiracy to help Team Trump to Moscow’s benefit.
Only 29 years old, Mariia Butina, who was taken into custody on Sunday, is charged with acting as an unregistered Russian agent—in layman’s terms, a spy—specifically with attempting to broker a meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. To do that, Butina made friends all over the Right half of our nation’s capital, according to the indictment, specifically with the Republican National Committee, various GOP representatives, and above all the National Rifle Association. Butina’s chummy relationship with the NRA had been previously noted by journalists, and now that controversial lobbying group faces awkward questions about its clandestine relationship with Butina, and therefore with Russian intelligence, going back to 2015.
The Butina case is but one strand in a complex web of long-term Russian espionage and influence operations that culminated in Donald Trump’s election in November 2016. Important questions are finally being asked by the MSM about how far that Kremlin spy-web reaches—above all, how many Republicans are caught up in it, wittingly or not? None of this is shocking to professionals who are versed in counterintelligence and how Chekists operate, but this secret world is upsetting to average citizens, who seldom note the SpyWar going on around them, invisibly. Trump and his fellow Friends-of-the-Kremlin in the GOP have made this remarkable saga front page news for the foreseeable future. How many of them will remain in office as this story unfolds is the great imponderable now, and only Robert Mueller and his closest associates may know for sure.