President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first summit meeting Monday in Helsinki, Finland. The meeting took place just days after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had announced indictments against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly hacking the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign during the 2016 election campaign. Some Democrats and media pundits wanted President Trump to cancel the meeting in the wake of the indictments, or at least to place the election meddling issue front and center of their discussions before any other issue. Reporters’ questions at the joint press conference following the meeting focused primarily on the election meddling issue. Critical security threats to the world, such as Iran and Syria, Islamic terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, are evidently of much lesser concern to President Trump’s critics.
In his opening remarks before the one-on-one meeting, President Trump noted the deteriorating state of U.S.-Russian relations and emphasized the importance of dialogue between the two countries’ leaders. “I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly we have not been getting along well for the last number of years,” President Trump said. “I really think the world wants to see us get along.” The Russian president said that “the time has come to have a thorough discussion on various international problems and sensitive issues. There are quite a few of them for us to pay attention to.” Both presidents ignored reporters’ shouted questions regarding the issue of Russian election meddling.
The private meeting between the two leaders lasted more than two hours, longer than originally scheduled, followed by a luncheon session that included top aides on both sides. Then President Trump and President Putin conducted a joint press conference.
President Trump declared in his opening press conference statement: “ Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed. As of about four hours ago. Refusing to engage will not accomplish anything. I will not make decisions on foreign policy to appease the media or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct. I would rather take political risks in pursuit of peace than risk peace in pursuit of politics.” President Trump mentioned a wide range of issues that he discussed with President Putin, including nuclear proliferation, the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism,” the crisis in Syria and Iran. Regarding Iran’s presence in Syria, he said he had made it clear to Mr. Putin that “we will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.”
President Trump also brought up the contentious issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election during his meeting with President Putin, as he had promised to do. “I addressed directly (the question of) Russian interference in our elections,” he said. “We spent a great deal of time talking about it.” However, during the Q&A portion of the press conference, President Trump launched into his usual charge that the Mueller probe was a witch hunt with respect to the issue of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “There was no collusion,” he said. “I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with.”
When asked directly whether he believed President Putin’s denials or the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies’ finding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and whether he would “denounce what happened in 2016” and warn President Putin “to never do it again,” President Trump desisted. He said that “all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coates [the Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they 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.” He also raised questions of his own about the missing Democratic National Committee server, which the FBI had not taken to examine, and Hillary Clinton’s missing 33,000 e-mails. President Trump’s response raised eyebrows on both sides of the Congressional aisle. Dan Coats, President Trump’s director of national intelligence whom the president mentioned in his response, left no doubt where he stands on Russian election meddling: “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.”
For his part, President Putin said the discussions were “successful and useful” and marked “the first steps to restore “an acceptable level of trust and go back to previous level of interaction on all mutual interest issues.” To nobody’s surprise, he strongly denied the election meddling claim, although admitting that he had wanted to see Mr. Trump win the election. He said that President Trump had brought up “the theme of Russia’s so-called meddling (in the 2016 U.S. election). I had to repeat what I’ve said before, that the Russian state has never interfered and has no intention to interfere.” Following up on President Trump’s denial of any collusion, President Putin challenged reporters to “name a single fact that would definitely prove the collusion,” adding that the claim was “utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.”
Referring specifically to the 12 Russian intelligence officers who were the subject of the Department of Justice indictments announced last Friday, President Putin said, “I don’t know the full extent of the situation, but President Trump mentioned this issue and I will look into it.” Mr. Putin then proposed utilizing the specific legal procedures set out in an existing agreement between the United States and Russia under which he said Special Counsel Mueller could send an official request for Russia’s law enforcement to interrogate these individuals charged with crimes. “We can make another step,” he added. “We can actually permit official representatives of the United States, including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller — we can let them into the country and they will be present at this questioning.” As a condition for proceeding in this fashion, President Putin demanded reciprocal action from the United States. “Then we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate, and that they would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia, and we have to — to request the presence of our law enforcement.”
When asked whether his own denials of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election should be believed, President Putin provided a cynical response. “As to who is to be believed, as to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one,” he said. “Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or that I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America and I defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have interests in common and we are looking for points of contact.” He pushed back at a question whether Russia had collected any compromising material on President Trump when he was visiting Moscow as a private citizen. “Well, it’s difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this,” he said. President Trump interjected, “And I have to say if they had it, it would have been out long ago.”
While the 2016 presidential election was by far the leading matter on reporters’ minds, there were some scattered questions on other topics, including the two presidents’ disagreements on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline intended to link Russia and Germany. One journalist asked about any specific arrangements for the U.S. to work together with Russia in Syria. President Trump mentioned cooperation with Russia on humanitarian relief and doing “certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel.” President Trump noted that both he and Mr. Putin had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although Iran’s increasing attempt to establish a permanent presence in Syria was not mentioned specifically in this context, it was certainly an elephant in the room.
President Trump had tweeted before the summit meeting that he considered the bad relationship with Russia to be caused by “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” During the press conference, he backtracked a bit and pinned the blame on both sides. “I hold both countries responsible,” he said in response to a question. “We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame.”
In this summit, President Trump is to be especially credited for making an attempt to gauge if Putin’s regime can not only cooperate in reducing the threat of nuclear war, but also in mitigating the aggression of Iran’s terror regime – a regime that Obama enabled and empowered. Indeed, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent outreach to Russia indicated, there is a vital effort in play to persuade Putin to get Iran to pull back its forces in Syria that are weighing on Israel. If Trump succeeds in pressuring Putin and, in turn, Iran to do that, it would be a huge stride forward in securing Israel’s security and, therefore, true Middle East peace.
Meanwhile, the expected criticisms being aimed at President Trump from the Left are, as usual, completely ignorant about what is really at stake and, also as usual, way over the top. Taking the cake, former CIA director in the Obama Administration, John Brennan, charged that “Donald Trump’s press performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors. It was nothing short of treasonous.” It is rather intriguing that Brennan would choose to speak about treason. This is a man who enabled the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence over U.S. policy during the Obama administration. It is also a man who exploited his position as CIA director to weaponize unverified intelligence information for political purposes in a way that would make former KGB officer Vladimir Putin proud.