The fallout from Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

Muhammad Zamir | Published: July 19, 2018 21:20:50 | Updated: July 19, 2018 22:17:46


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP GESTURES WHILE SPEAKING DURING HIS MEETING WITH MEMBERS OF HIS CABINET IN THE CABINET ROOM OF THE WHITE HOUSE IN WASHINGTON, ON JULY 18, 2018: His toughness with Vladimir Putin in question, President Donald Trump declared on Wednesday he had told the Russian leader face to face to stay out of America's elections "and that's the way it's going to be." —AP

A strident bipartisan backlash in Washington has led to President Donald Trump claiming that during his post-summit press conference he misspoke on alleged Russian election meddling during the 2016 US Presidential elections. He made an effort to reverse his remark.

Trump said on Tuesday that he accepted US intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, though he declined to do so just a day ago in Helsinki. Reading prepared remarks to reporters in the White House Cabinet Room, he gave a 'clarification' on his answer to the question regarding Russian alleged election interference asked in the Helsinki press conference. He claimed he had 'missoken' a word: "In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't,' " he added. "The sentence should have been: 'I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia.' "

During Helsinki news conference, Trump said, with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his side: "I don't see any reason why it would be" Russia that interfered in the election. This comment drew a barrage of criticism.

Both Republican and Democrat politicians in the US, as well as intelligence officials appear to have been dumbfounded that President Trump sided with Russia over his own intelligence officials during the press conference convened after the summit. This has particularly been due to the fact that the USA and Russia have been long-term adversaries, and have remained far apart on several major issues. Some members of the US Congress were also upset that Trump had not only refused to offer specific criticisms of Russia and President Putin but had instead observed that both countries were responsible for the current poor relations between the two countries.

The political firestorm over Trump's performance at the Helsinki news conference has engulfed the US administration and eclipsed most of the other controversies that have erupted at different times during the President's turbulent first 18 months in office. Taking direct issue with the President who appointed him, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said US spy agencies have been "clear" and "fact-based" in their assessment that Moscow interfered in the presidential race two years ago. John McCain, the senior Republican Senator has joined the backlash by pointing out that Trump's seeming acceptance of Putin's denial was a historical "low point" for the US Presidency. Similarly, one of Trump's loyal Republican supporters, Newt Gingrich has said that Trump's comments were the "most serious mistake of his Presidency". House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia's government "menacing," has said that despite the friendly overtures made by Trump, he would consider supporting legislation aimed at additional sanctions on Russia. He has also reiterated his support for US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

 The language used by Democrats has been considerably harsher, including accusations of "treason". Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer has mentioned that "for the President of the US to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defence officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak". Democratic California Representative Jimmy Gomez has also charged that "to side with Putin over US intelligence is disgusting; to fail to defend the US is on the verge of treason."

The comment made by Paul Ryan has reflected the views of some US lawmakers who have now publicly stated that they would seek remedies against Russia through tougher sanctions being agreed to in Congress. Analysts have remarked that this hard line appears to have emerged because just prior to the Summit the US Department of Justice formally indicted 12 Russians for hacking Democratic Party computers.

TRUMP FLIP-FLOPS: BBC and CNN have pointed out that Trump, in his latest remarks has expressed his "full faith and support" in US intelligence agencies in a bid to avoid further controversy in this regard.

The international media has reported on this issue on the basis of a transcript posted by the White House-

What Trump said then-

"REPORTER: President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is, who do you believe?

TRUMP: My people came to me... 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".

 ....and what he has said in Washington after apparently having reviewed the transcript and realising that he needed to clarify:

"In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't," he said. The sentence, according to him, should have been: 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't' or 'why it wouldn't be Russia'- sort of a double negative."

The US President also added: "I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also- a lot of people out there." He has also remarked that the interference had had no impact on the election, in which he defeated Hillary Clinton.

However, Trump did not respond when reporters asked him if he would condemn Putin.

CRITICISM CONTINUES: Despite the reversal, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has accused the US President of cowardice. In the social media he has remarked on  July 17 that President Putin will "continue to take advantage of Donald Trump' because he doesn't have the courage, the strength, maybe not even the conviction to say to Putin's face what he tried to say a few minutes ago".

Anthony Zurcher of the BBC, writing from Washington, has observed that Trump's assertion has been "a pretty weak way to confront the head of a nation accused of targeting the heart of American democracy." Through this explanation President Trump has given his supporters some leg room to stand on. The damage has however been done. 

Stephen Collinson of the CNN on  July 17 commented that "as long as history remembers Donald Trump, it will be a day that will live in infamy."

Other analysts have noted that the events that unfolded in Helsinki are likely to have significant and unpredictable political and geopolitical reverberations in the United States and around the world. Many of them are mentioning that Trump has emerged from the summit a diminished figure.

Many are referring to two different and controversial issues and asking associated questions- (a) why did Trump cave in so spectacularly to Putin and (b) what prompted the decision on his part to meet Putin alone for nearly two hours in Helsinki with only interpreters being present. Collinson has suggested that answers to these two questions might remain cloudy in the near future unless special counsel Robert Mueller finds evidence the President is beholden to the Russian leader in some way or the other.

Whatever be the reason, it, according to the European media, has cast a shadow on the myth of Trump as an American strongman.

This evolving dynamics has also in its own way caused some important European countries to re-visit their analysis of US existential leadership of the world. According to Reuters, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has told the Funke newspaper group that "We can no longer completely rely on the White House." This means that Europe is becoming increasingly nervous - both in terms of sharing information on security by intelligence agencies as well as contentious aspects related to trade and business.

Civil society groups on either side of the Atlantic are also getting worried about links. This has led Nicholas Dungan, a senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council to comment that America's friends -- like French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe- need to adopt a dual track approach- "You need two different policies. You need one policy to the individual Donald Trump, because it's clear that he doesn't make the distinction between himself and his office. You need another policy toward the United States of America."  This is indeed a strong comment that will reverberate all over the European Union as well as in the Far East and Canada.

White House and State Department officials, one is sure, will now be undertaking a fresh soul-searching after this latest development.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information

 and good governance.

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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