19 July 2018
19 July 2018

President Trump’s behavior has gone from baffling… to bizarre… to downright dangerous.

American intelligence agencies have found concrete evidence of Russian tampering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But during their summit in Helsinki, Trump appeared to believe Vladimir Putin’s denials instead.

At a news conference at the end of their meeting, Trump cast doubt on the findings of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice and even leading investigators in the U.S. Congress.

“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said.

And then, as if to fortify his case, Trump added “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

It was a rhetorical embrace of the Russian leader —  a former KGB agent who has overseen the annexation of Crimea and who seems to have no problem with the murders of his political opponents. And they were the kind of comments never before uttered by an American president on foreign soil.

Trump never challenged Putin. Instead, he went on and on about the various investigations into the election, declaring them to be “a disaster for our country.” He called the work of special counsel Robert Mueller “a witch hunt.” And while he offered warm words for the Russian leader,  Trump heaped scorn on Mueller and his team.

He was rambling. He was unhinged. It was scary.

Trump swore that during his few hours with President Putin he had managed to put U.S.-Russian relations on a new, more positive course.   Putin, standing with a slight smirk on his face, could barely hide his delight.

All this happened just three days after 12 Russian intelligence agents were indicted by the United States Justice Department for computer hacking during the election campaign. Names were named… details of their operation were there in the legal paperwork for all to see. And just as the summit was wrapping up, a Russian woman living in the United States on a tourist visa, was charged with acting as a covert foreign agent. She allegedly tried to infiltrate political organizations — most notably the National Rifle Association, a group with strong ties to the Republican Party and President Trump.

Trump’s own advisors urged him to take a hard line on all this during the summit. But again, Trump ignored them and went his own way.

The blowback was intense.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — a former Republican Senator from Indiana — immediately defended the findings of the agencies he oversees. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” he said.

That was mild compared to the reaction of several former leaders of the intelligence community.

Former CIA Director John Brennan, who was among the first to warn that Russia was trying to sabotage our presidential election and help Donald Trump, posted on Twitter:

“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

Treason. Ponder that one.

Members of Congress also spoke out. There were loud protests, as you would expect, from the Democrats. But there was also a pushback from leading Republicans, including some who warned that the President’s actions in Helsinki may ultimately have an impact on our national security.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally… the United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”

Senator John McCain — the Vietnam War hero who has become the conscience of the Congress as he battles a lethal form of brain cancer — was even more blunt. In a written statement, the Arizona Republican said:

“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. 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.”

And then there was this from Congressman Will Hurd. The Texas Republican is not well known outside this country, but he is unique among lawmakers because he was once an undercover agent for the CIA and his observations deserve attention.

Hurd tweeted: “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career and I never would have thought that the US President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands.”

It might be said that Trump’s performance on this just concluded European trip was to be expected. It was at times erratic, boastful and anything but diplomatic. It was all about him.

He chastised the NATO allies for not paying enough for their common defense, forced their summit into emergency session and then declared victory when they said they would keep to their current plan for increasing spending. Nothing changed except for the tone of the meeting and the shattered nerves in the alliance.

Then on to Britain, where he praised Prime Minister Teresa May’s political rivals, lashed out at her handling of the U.K.’s pending split from the European Union and even managed to break protocol by walking in front of the Queen.

The world seemed upside down. Allies treated like foes… foes praised like friends.

And when he got home, things got even crazier.

Under extreme pressure, Trump said he misspoke in Helsinki. He said he accepts the finding of the intelligence community that Russians “meddled” in the election and that he really meant to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,” instead of “would.”

Right. Just take a look at the videotape of the Helsinki news conference… and study all his remarks. If you listen to his words closely, his backtracking at the White House 24 hours later just sounds lame and forced.

Game… Set… match. Trump sold himself to America as a “winner.” But this time, Putin won.



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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