There’s no softer or more polite way to say it: President Trump groveled before Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. His display - and the conduct of his administration in the days since - sent a dangerous message to our intelligence communities here at home and audiences watching around the world, while also leaving some serious questions unanswered.
The focal point of the presser was when the president was asked point blank who he believed on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election: his own intelligence agencies, or Vladimir Putin himself. It is a question Trump has struggled with many times before. Predictably, when asked at the presser, he whiffed; his answer was garbled per usual, but he ultimately said he “didn’t see why it would be” Russia who meddled.
Every news cycle since has been dominated by the White House’s attempts to clarify (that is, change) the president’s statement, with the president qualifying his heavily scripted walk back, saying contradictory things in different interviews, and freewheeling on Twitter. This has all been complicated by contrasting statements from national security leaders within the Trump Administration. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates maintains that the Russians are actively working to interfere in the fall midterms, while Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen still can’t admit that they were helping Trump in 2016.
The net effect of all of this is a massive strain on the relationship between the White House and the intelligence community, which is self-evidently bad for our national security. It is also leading to a failure to respond to what Coates correctly identifies as an ongoing problem: Russian interference in elections to come. Perhaps because they felt the need to rally around their besieged leader, House Republicans blocked Democrats’ attempts to bolster funding for the Election Assistance Commission, which protects the critical voting infrastructure of states.
There was also optical damage done at the Trump-Putin meeting, on which the eyes of the world were trained. President Trump missed an opportunity to call out Russia’s destructive behavior on the world stage. Instead of denouncing the invasion of Crimea, the downing of a civilian airliner, the poisoning of ex-pats on foreign soil, the killing of journalists, the arrest of opposition leaders, or the protection of murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, he offered his classic ‘both sides are to blame’ take when asked about the source of difficulties in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
It cannot have been a reassuring moment for our allies, who had spent the weekend prior getting variously ranted at, slandered in their local press, and otherwise degraded by a belligerent Trump. Indeed, in the first follow-up interview after Helsinki, the president took aim at NATO once again. He and Fox’s Tucker Carlson publicly puzzled over the point of collective security agreements, wondering why they should have to defend the country of Montenegro from attack. Could Putin, who attempted a coup in Montenegro in 2016, put that seed into the president’s head during their bilateral chat? We may never know.
The fact that we may never know is the third post-summit problem, and a significant one at that. Multiple times since the meeting, the Russian government has hinted at “verbal agreements” between Putin and Trump on security issues reached during the conversation. The White House has been mum on what those agreements might contain - possibly because no one knows what the president may or may not have agreed to.
It is the president’s right to make foreign policy, but it is the peoples’ right to know what that policy is. It’s an especially relevant give-and-take now given that public bipartisan outcry is one of the only tactics we have to steer the president away from terrible ideas. And so far, two of the only ideas we know came out of Putin and Trump’s conversation are indeed terrible: a ‘fox in the henhouse’-esque cybersecurity collaboration with Moscow, and the notion that Putin might be able to “question” U.S. citizens against whom he bears a grudge (denounced by the U.S. Senate in a 98-0 vote on Thursday).
Remarkably, amidst all this chaos, the White House has announced that Putin will be invited to Washington this fall, no doubt shortly before or after those elections he’s trying to influence. So at present, the only certain thing is that all this will begin anew in a few months - to what end though, no one knows.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.