The idea of Donald Trump hosting a campaign rally, keeping thousands of supporters in suspense and then pulling back the curtain to reveal that his special guest speaker is Vladimir Putin sounds like a wild hallucination. But not quite as wild as it was a week ago.
The US president capped a mind-boggling week by asking his staff to invite the Russian leader to the White House in the autumn, just before the midterm elections.
“It’s remarkably bad timing,” said Rick Tyler, a political analyst. “Putin might as well come and campaign in the midterms.”
Trump’s first summit with Putin in Helsinki last Monday is assured a place in the history books. It culminated in a joint press conference that left the political, media and national security establishments picking their jaws from the floor, Democrats demanding answers about Trump’s cryptic relationship with Russia and everyone asking anew how long this most singular presidency can survive.
Yet for all the intrigue and slapdash diplomacy, the episode seemingly did little harm to Trump among his loyal ranks of supporters, merely reinforcing suspicion of his critics and suggesting that, from his point of view, the summit might not have been such a mistake after all.
First, Trump and Putin spent more than two hours in conversation with only interpreters for company. Trump’s national security officials admit they still have no idea what was said or promised. Then came the press conference beneath crystal chandeliers, against a backdrop of American and Russian flags, the scene framed in gold leaf. Trump stood taller and broader than Putin but the judo black belt would soon turn the weight of his opponent against him.
Attempting to blow his own trumpet, Trump declared: “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.” Putin’s face was inscrutable. There were involuntary giggles among the White House press corps.
But it was towards the end of the event that true disaster struck. Putin, who had scored a propaganda coup by successfully hosting the World Cup, handed Trump a football. “That will go to my son, Barron,” the businessman and reality TV star said. “We have no question. In fact, Melania, here you go.” He bounced the ball towards his wife; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, shot out an arm and caught it.
The laughter in the room had barely faded when Jonathan Lemire, a journalist from the Associated Press, asked: “Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did … Who do you believe?”
It was a question that cut to the chase and it floored the president. First, bizarrely, he flailed for fringe conspiracy theories about the Democratic National Committee’s computer server. Then he said: “My people came to me – Dan Coats [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 added: “So 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.”
This time there was a stunned silence, save for the intense hammering of keyboards. Had an American president really sided with the authoritarian leader of a hostile country over his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies? He had. It was, said Ash Carter, former defense secretary, “like watching the destruction of a cathedral”.
It also evoked the sharpest bipartisan rebuke since Trump drew moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-Nazi activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, almost a year ago. Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans weighed in as expected with talk of disgrace, humiliation and treason, but there was also criticism from allies such as the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, and elements of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Many baffled observers wondered if Putin did indeed have something on Trump and whether the president of the United States had gone rogue.
Tyler, a former spokesman for the 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, said: “He somehow concluded that standing on stage with a despot from Russia was going to make him look strong but in the end it made him look weak. He diminished himself significantly. He’s not a negotiator, he’s not a deal-maker and all those things he promised in the campaign, it was just salesman’s shtick. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and he has made Putin much more than he is.”
And yet, what happened next served only to demonstrate Trump’s vice-like grip on his party, and the White House, and the challenge that remains for Democrats to hold him to account.
Under pressure from staff, the president performed a U-turn of sorts, claiming he had mangled his grammar. When he said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, he explained, what he meant to say was, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be”. It was apparently the most consequential linguistic slip since an IT expert advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, that an email was “legitimate” when in fact he meant to say it was “illegitimate”, leading to Podesta’s account being hacked by Russians.
The retreat did not satisfy all Republicans. John Thune, No 3 in the Senate, told Politico it was “probably the best we’re going to be able to get, right?” But along with further botched clarifications, it did enough to take the sting out of the crisis.
Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank in Stanford, California, said: “The response to the press conference was forceful from some, but the response to the walkback was even more telling. I heard multitudes of Republicans take him at his word and say let’s move on.”
‘Purely symbolic acts’
White House aides were said to be in despair, yet they did not resign. Republicans were said to be cringing, yet they did not move against the president, keenly aware that he remains immensely popular among grassroots voters. Recently Mark Sanford, a conservative critic of Trump, lost his bid for re-election in South Carolina after the president savaged him on Twitter.
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, said: “The criticism from Republicans in Congress, while strong, has still be very measured and calibrated. Unless you are one of those Republicans not up for re-election, there just isn’t an elevated interest in testing the president’s base support with more pointed criticism.”
From this perspective, Trump’s courtship of Putin is not necessarily the strategic folly it seems. His base seems indifferent to and untroubled by the Russia issue, believing the threat has been exaggerated, while conservative media have spent months wearing down trust in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion. The liberal backlash to a visit by Putin to the White House could actually strengthen Trump in the eyes of his followers, fuelling their sense of grievance at a “deep state” conspiracy and what they see as “Trump derangement syndrome”.
There has seldom been more onus on Congress to do its job and keep the president in check. The Helsinki drama offered a revealing test case in where Republicans and Democrats are willing to draw the line now – and how hard they are likely to push in future.
Senators voted 98-0 to reject Putin’s idea, which Trump first described as “incredible”, of a quid pro quo that would have seen Americans – including a former ambassador to Moscow – sent to Russia for questioning. A bipartisan bill is in the pipeline that would aim to deter Russia from future election interference by automatically imposing fresh sanctions. Republicans are planning extra committee hearings to discuss legislation as part of a “national response” to the cyberattacks.
On the other hand, House Republicans rejected a measure that would have subpoenaed the interpreter who was at Trump’s side during his private meeting with Putin, in the hope of gleaning what was discussed. A bipartisan Senate resolution that reaffirms the intelligence community’s finding of Russian interference was knocked down after being dismissed by the chief whip as a “purely symbolic act”.
Ben Rhodes, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted: “Why aren’t Republicans demanding hearings and documents about whatever secret deals Trump made with Putin? They control congressional committees with oversight authority, not just Twitter accounts to express platitudes.”
Democrats are pushing for more. They called for a bill that would protect Mueller and demanded that Russia extradite the 12 military intelligence officers he indicted just over a week ago, something Trump said before the summit he “hadn’t thought” to ask Putin about. They want to push for the release of Trump’s tax returns, lest they reveal compromising business ties to Russia. Some have also urged further sanctions against Moscow, despite the White House claim it has been tougher than Barack Obama.
But tellingly, demands for impeachment in the wake of Helsinki were few and far between. The congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon were among those calling for Congress to remove the president from office, but Democratic leaders continue to play down the notion, doubtless aware it could galvanise pro-Trump voters.
Chen said: “It’s unrealistic and counterproductive. For some elements of the progressive left it’s important but, frankly, I think it’s the best gift they can give Trump. It helps unify Republicans in Congress and shows how far from reality these people are.”
Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, agreed. “I don’t think at this point that word is useful,” he said, advising his party to instead adopt a “relentless” focus on November’s midterm elections.
“Talk about healthcare, talk about economic justice, talk about tax fairness, talk about choice. Republicans have this idea that the Brett Kavanaugh nomination [to the supreme court] is going to energise their base. I think it has the potential to incredibly energise the Democratic base.”
The Trump-Putin saga should also be talked about, Shrum added, “but it’s probably not at this point the centrepiece of the campaign”.
‘If you’re Joan of Arc, good luck to you’
In 2020, there is the possibility of a Republican challenger to Trump in the primary, attempting to persuade the party it can regain its senses and a hard line on Russia. Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, and the Arizona senator Jeff Flake are possible contenders. But it would be a long shot for anyone and could exact a high price.
Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, told the Guardian: “Unfortunately, we have a lot of egomaniacs in the Republican party. I don’t know if any president ever has the full confidence of their party, to be totally candid, but if there is a challenge to President Trump I think that people have got to really think twice because his approval rating is at 90% in the Republican party, higher than Ronald Reagan’s approval rating going into the ’82 midterms.
“So if you’re going to do it as a vanity play, or you’re going to do it as a martyr play, if you’re Joan of Arc or something like that, OK, good luck to you, but he’s going to schmeist you and you’re going to get stuck with an internationally recognised nickname for the rest of your life.”
Even so, there was a sense in Washington that something had shifted after probably the most damaging week yet of Trump’s presidency – a week in which the word “treason” became part of the conversation.
Benjy Sarlin, a political reporter NBC News, wrote on Twitter: “I don’t know if there’s direct political fallout to the Putin meeting, but a pretty clear impact by now is that relatively fringe theories about Trump’s motives moved to the mainstream and even center-right elite in a way that wasn’t true before. Not sure that just goes away.”