US President Donald Trump is facing a tidal wave of criticism after his summit with his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin at Helsinki on Monday. The two leaders met in Finland amid an ongoing investigation by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. But far from rebuking the Kremlin, Trump virtually gave Russia a clean chit. He declared that he believed Putin’s denials that Russia had not been involved in the US presidential race.
At a joint press conference that followed a two-hour one-on-one meeting between the leaders, Trump said, “They [US intelligence] 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. I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump later reiterated his stance on Twitter.
Putin, meanwhile, said that “the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election processes”.
Trump’s remarks came days after US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking into emails of Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff. Trump has frequently decried Mueller’s probe, which also includes allegations of Russian ties with the Trump campaign, as a witch hunt.
Trump also did not bring up Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, or the nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain in March, for which Russia is widely believed to be responsible. Both actions have received widespread international condemnation, including from the US.
Trump’s conduct was quickly denounced by critics, political opponents and even fellow Republicans. Through press statements or tweets, several politicians condemned Trump for seemingly cosying up to Russia.
The most stinging rebuke came from Republican Senator John McCain, who called the press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. In a statement, McCain said that it was hard to measure the damage done by Trump’s “naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats”.
“It is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake,” he said. “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.”
Senior Republican leader and House Speaker Paul Ryan also issued a statement asserting that “there is no question” that Russia meddled in the US elections. “That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence,” he added. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse were equally critical. Flake described the events of Helsinki as “shameful” in a tweet, while Sasse said Trump should have declared Russia an enemy. Several other Republican leaders, including Mitch McConnell, similarly disavowed Trump’s stance, while Newt Gingrich, a long-time Trump supporter, called it “the most serious mistake of his presidency”.
The near-unanimous criticism from lawmakers prompted Trump to schedule a meeting with the Congress on Tuesday.
Dan Coats, whom Trump appointed as the Director of National Intelligence in 2017, stood by the US intelligence community’s findings on Russian meddling. He said:
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that Trump’s press conference was “nothing short of treasonous”. That sentiment was also shared by others including Former White House chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter and Democrat Jimmy Gomez, who said: “To side with Putin over US intelligence is disgusting; to fail to defend the US is on the verge of treason.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer excoriated Trump for being “thoughtless, dangerous and weak”. In a series of tweets, the Democrat said that the president had strengthened his adversaries while weakening his country.
The American and international media was equally vocal in its criticism. “Open Treason”, declared the New York Daily News front page headline, while the Daily Mirror went with “Putin’s Poodle”.
Finnish paper Kauppaleht neatly summed up the outcome of the summit in its headline.
Several other reputed publications also criticised the talks, though through more staid headlines.
Editorial cartoonists also sharpened their tools to attack the US President.