The much-anticipated first formal sit-down between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, concluded with no surprises on Monday evening, while the two leaders vowed to move beyond political friction and find areas of cooperation.
The meeting was overshadowed in accounts from political analysts by the ongoing federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, which was brought to the fore on Friday with the indictment of 12 Russians by the US Department of Justice.
While American intelligence agencies have assessed that Putin himself signed off on a campaign to sow discord among the US voting public and tilt the election in favor of President Trump, the Russian president denied his government was involved. Putin did not hesitate, when asked directly, to acknowledge he was hoping that Trump would be elected.
Following a two and a half hour-long closed-door meeting between the two leaders, the Russia probe dominated a joint press conference, during which the Russian president urged Trump not to put stock in the findings of US intelligence agencies, but instead to let the matter be resolved by courts.
Trump reiterated his position that the probe into whether his presidential campaign colluded with the alleged Russian interference was politically motivated and represented a “disaster for our country.”
“Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything.”
Making efforts to move past the politically-charged allegations, Putin touted the summit as a “success.” The US president echoed the remarks, saying the meeting was a “really good start for everyone.”
Topics discussed included Syria, which Trump highlighted as an important area of possible cooperation in conjunction with Israel.
“We both spoke with [Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu] and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel,” Trump said. “Russia and the United States will work jointly [on this issue].”
While the Trump administration played down prospects for “concrete deliverables” to come out of the meeting, there was some speculation that, following a recent meeting between Putin and Netanyahu, a “grand bargain” between Washington and Moscow on Syria is in the works.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to condemn Trump’s performance in Helsinki, tweeting: “Just several days ago, 12 Russians were indicted for attacking our democracy. Today, America’s so-called leader embarrassingly failed to stand up to the person who spearheaded the attack. Seriously, what does Putin have on Trump that’s he’s so afraid?”
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”
But perhaps the harshest critique came from a member of Trump’s own party, Republican Senator John McCain, who said in a statement: “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.”
McCain, who is arguably Trump’s fiercest Republican critic, added: “President Trump proved not only unable but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican, was openly critical of the president’s assessment of Russia’s conduct: “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence.
“The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Former CIA chief John Brennan also weighed in, tweeting: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Further details of the private face-to-face session between the two presidents will likely be revealed in official readouts to be released by the two administrations.