Monday’s Helsinki summit meeting between President Trump and Russian President Putin began after Mr. Putin showed up almost an hour late. With Mr. Putin, such actions are never accidental. It was a put-down of Mr. Trump from which he never recovered entirely.
Mr. Trump began a day of uncharacteristic apologia with an early morning Tweet blaming ” many years of US foolishness and stupidity” for the reason that our relationship with Russia ” has never been worse.”
Meeting for almost two hours in private and then for another two hours in the company of their staffs, the two discussed a wide variety of subjects from the war in Syria to a continuing effort to reduce offensive nuclear arms.
As the two leaders described their talks in a joint press conference after the meetings, Syria was a primary topic. In his opening remarks, Mr. Putin said that the 1974 agreement that separated Israeli and Syrian forces should be enforced, meaning that Israeli forces now facing off with Iran’s military near the Golan Heights would have to pull back. Of course, he made no mention of the threat posed by Iran’s forces in such close proximity to the Israeli border.
In his opening statement and throughout the presser, the vast majority of Mr. Trump’s remarks repeated his belief in the value of a good relationship with Russia. But Mr. Trump’s response to Mr. Putin’s Syria ploy was right on target: He said we wouldn’t allow Iran to benefit from our campaign against ISIS in Syria.
Mr. Putin’s opening statement also mentioned that the two leaders believe that there should be further cooperation on the limitation of strategic weapons, referencing the 2002 Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction agreement that limited the number of both nations’ strategic weapon systems. (That agreement was replaced by former President Obama’s 2011 “New START” treaty with Russia, which is disadvantageous to us.) Mr. Putin said he wanted to renew those negotiations.
Mr. Trump was appropriately noncommittal. He said that all of the issues discussed would be taken up by both nations’ national security councils. At that point, the press conference drifted off into what, for Mr. Putin, must have been an enjoyable discussion of the Russian interference in our 2016 election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of it, and the July 13 indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officers.
The timing of those indictments was pointedly political. They were issued and highly publicized by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the last business day before the summit. They were intended to have a political impact on the summit, and in that they succeeded all too well.
Mr. Trump’s worst part of the press conference came when a reporter recounted that while every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia interfered in the election, Mr. Putin has consistently denied it. The reporter asked Mr. Trump, who do you believe?
Mr. Trump’s response was long, rambling and simply awful. He said that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and others came to him, ” they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason that it should be But I have confidence in both parties.”
For an American president to equate the trustworthiness of the U.S. intelligence community with a that of a Russian president was bizarre. By doing so, Mr. Trump damaged our national security and weakened himself in the eyes of every adversary and ally. Mr. Trump has a legitimate beef with the FBI and the CIA because of their conduct during the 2016 campaign. But this was the worst time, and the worst place, to say what he said.
Mr. Putin must have thoroughly enjoyed it when he was asked if Russia would extradite the 12 indicted Russian intelligence officers. Seeing a good chance to further wound Mr. Trump, he offered that Mr. Mueller could send a formal request to interrogate the indicted officers through channels. If it was granted, Russian officers would question them, possibly in the presence of Mr. Mueller’s attorneys.
But — and there’s always a “but” with the Russians — Mr. Putin said he would require that we reciprocate by questioning U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials whom the Russians believe may be responsible for illegal acts on Russian soil in the presence of Russian law enforcement officers.
Mr. Trump and his national security team have a lot of cleaning up to do after Helsinki. Our intelligence agencies have to be convinced that they have the president’s trust, far more than Mr. Putin does. That won’t be easy to do. Many allies will have to be reassured and many adversaries — especially Mr. Putin — have to be made to understand that the decay in the U.S.-Russia relationship is solely due to Mr. Putin’s decade of aggression and that all our allies need to invest to protect against it.
If Mr. Trump is not willing to embark on that course and not deviate from it, whatever else he does in foreign policy, he will fail.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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