Donald Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin will go down in history as one of the most astonishing ever. The US president took Putin’s side over that of his own intelligence community, and refused to acknowledge that Russia hacked the 2016 presidential election.
When asked point-blank to condemn Moscow’s meddling in US democracy, Trump couldn’t bring himself to do so. For two years, Trump has faced claims that he was beholden to Russia and in some intangible way even controlled by it. Monday’s press conference did nothing to banish this impression.
The trickiest part of the summit concerned the Kremlin’s hacking of Democratic party emails, which were released in 2016 to damage Hillary Clinton when she was the party’s presidential candidate. Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, on Friday accused 12 Russian military intelligence officers of carrying it out. He gave granular detail in the indictment of how the operation was done. On Monday, however, Trump refused to condemn the attack or even accept Russia was behind it. Instead, Trump said that both sides – Washington and Moscow – had “made mistakes”. He added: “I don’t see any reason why they [the Russians] would have done it.”
Trump then launched an attack on the FBI and wanted to know why it had failed to find Clinton’s “missing” 33,000 emails. Trump was unable to move beyond the campaign rhetoric of 2016 or stand up for US national interests. His critics, including the former CIA director John Brennan, saw this as nothing less than treason. If Trump is impeached, this clip will play in all subsequent TV dramas and documentaries.
One of the big questions pre-summit was whether Trump would call for the extradition to the US of the 12 Russian spies indicted by Mueller. He didn’t. When the subject came up in the question and answer session, Putin sought to throw the accusation back. He said he would investigate the report and even offered to “cooperate”. The Kremlin, he said, would allow Mueller’s team to visit Moscow and to question suspects. In return, however, it wanted access to Bill Browder, a US-born British financier who is a Kremlin bogeyman. Putin was well aware that Mueller’s investigators won’t be visiting Russian anytime soon. He extended a similar offer in 2006 to Scotland Yard following the radioactive murder of Alexander Litvinenko using a cup of tea. The detectives who flew to Moscow found themselves in a PR pantomime, with their efforts to get evidence thwarted by the state.
Does Moscow have compromising information on Trump? The question has haunted the president since publication, in January 2017, of the dossier by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Asked about this, Putin said he did not know Trump was in Moscow when the future US president visited Russia in 2013 for the Miss Universe beauty contest. ”Please disregard these issues,” he said. This was a classic non-denial answer. And a lie. Putin knew of Trump’s trip at the time, had tentative plans to meet him and sent Trump a gift. Asked about kompromat, Trump said that if it did exist “it would have come out by now”.
Trump again denied that there had been any collusion between his campaign and Russia. This was, he said, a pathetic excuse by the Democrats who should have won the election but failed to do so. Plus, he said, “there was no one to collude with”. Putin agreed. He said there was no evidence. And added that Mueller’s claims should be tested in court, rather than taken for granted. Even so, Putin made one interesting admission. Asked if he wanted Trump to win in 2016, he replied: “Yes, I did”. Russia’s president said he backed Trump as a candidate because Trump wanted to normalise relations with Russia. This is as close as Putin has come to admitting he favoured one candidate over the other.
Putin’s opening statement featured a boilerplate list of international issues – arms control, counter-terrorism, Iran, North Korea and Syria. He said a bilateral group of experts could meet to discuss international problems – including cybersecurity. Trump’s list was far shorter. He said nothing about Ukraine. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014, after Putin annexed Crimea and started a covert war in the east of the country. Putin defended his decision to seize Crimea, while Trump stayed silent. The US president also had nothing to say about the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with the military-grade nerve agent novichok, or the apparently collateral death this month of Dawn Sturgess. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, had explicitly asked Trump to raise the attempted assassination when she held talks with the US president last week – apparently in vain.