In the aftermath of a busy news week for US foreign policy, with President Trump’s appearances at NATO and his long-anticipated visit to the UK, the White House press department was on high alert for the arrival of the President in Helsinki for one-to-one talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The fraught background to these talks cannot be underestimated, amid the ongoing Mueller enquiry and much-reported sanctions on Russian individuals. The critical column inches dedicated to the rights and wrongs of the US President meeting with the head of a government widely viewed as hostile to his country’s interests paled in comparison to the post-match analysis.
‘Politically disastrous’, ‘nothing short of treasonous’, and ‘one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory’ were just a few of the more damning evaluations of the meeting, the last of which from Republican Senator John McCain, which added insult to injury.
The build up to the summit was far from ideal from a communications perspective for the White House, as Trump undermined the position of successive US administrations on Russia by blaming American “stupidity and foolishness” for bad relations with Russia. The retweeting by the Russian foreign ministry of Trump’s comments with the concise response “we agree” will have further compromised Trump’s position at home.
The fact that the President proceeded with a meeting with Putin a mere week after the Mueller probe indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for interference in Trump’s own election victory had set the cat among the pigeons domestically, paving the way for accusations that Trump is a leader that prioritises his own interests over those of his country.
That the meeting took place at all, apparently legitimising Russia’s claims of innocence on the election meddling front, already placed Putin in the ascendancy. For Trump, the repeated assertions by US intelligence agencies of Russian interference serve to delegitimise his victory, which rankles with his self-cultivated image as a champion of the public. His comments following the one-to-one meeting with his former Russian foe, that he doesn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia’s fault, now threaten to derail his all-important midterms campaign in this critical election year and hand the momentum to the chasing Democrat pack.
Even more worrying, his ill-judged comments, which ran contrary to White House briefings ahead of the Helsinki meeting as well as US intelligence information, provoked immediate outrage on all sides of the political spectrum. US House Speaker Paul Ryan insisted there was ”no question” Russia was guilty of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, adding that the President “must appreciate that Russia is not ally”. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic ideals and values,” he said.
His views were echoed by Fox News host and daughter of the US Ambassador to Russia Abby Huntsman, who added that “no negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus”.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meanwhile said that Trump’s contradiction of the US position in favour of Putin’s vague denials of interference in US affairs was “thoughtless, dangerous, and weak”. “The president is putting himself over our country.” he added.
Trump’s willingness to embrace Putin’s half-hearted Russian assurances over the evidence of his own intelligence services do little to dispel these accusations. The lack of any outside observers or note-taking to their unchoreographed talks further present the president as a renegade who cannot and will not be advised.
At a highly-sensitive moment in Trump’s own presidency and for US international relations, Trump’s Russian flirtation has not only inflamed tensions at home amongst his own party and across the House floor, as the Mueller investigation continues to develop, he has also further alienated America’s traditional European allies following the divisive NATO meeting.
“We can no longer fully rely on the White House”, responded German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “If the US sees the EU as foe, that shows how deep the rift in the Atlantic has become,” he added.
Congressional Republicans have sought to distance themselves from Trump’s faith in Russia, whilst Congress also considers legislation to reaffirm US commitment to NATO following Trump’s assault on the body in Brussels, as a further means of disassociating US values from Russia.
The President will not have been ignorant to the virulent reaction his statements provoked. Yet, his meandering clarification that he doesn’t “see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia” went little way to undo the damage inflicted in Helsinki, especially when he followed it up with “it could be other people also”. Having expressed “full faith” in US intelligence on Tuesday, Trump then sowed further seeds of doubt in the minds of his critics and colleagues alike when he insisted that any proven interference had had no impact on his own election to office.
If the President is to quieten the furore and get the Republican midterms campaign back on track, he needs to not only show he’s prepared to prioritise US interests even where they might diverge from his own personal agenda, he needs to show a commitment to greater transparency in his international diplomacy, as doubts persist over his version of the discussions with Putin in Helsinki. The President’s attempts to back-track his way out of a domestic mud-slinging in his direction appeared to backfire, as Senator Schumer demanded urgent hearings “to assess what President Trump might have committed to President Putin in secret”.
“You can’t assume anything but that as weak as he was in public before President Putin, he was even worse in private. Why else did he not want anyone in the room?”, he added.
As doubts persist over the President’s preference for behind-closed-doors diplomacy, the President’s team will be looking to show greater transparency to regain the trust of an American people left in the dark about the promises being made to autocrat leaders at a perceived likely cost to national security.
Ultimately, if the President is to quell the storm, he needs to listen to the universal criticism being levelled at him and make a more expansive effort to clarify that his position on the US intelligence system and Putin is in sync with the US official line. Failure to act quickly or conclusively enough could definitively compromise his presidency, not to mention America’s standing on the global stage.