Puppet in Putin's pocket?
It’s come to this: The Democratic leaders in Congress openly suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is blackmailing the American president, Donald Trump.
"Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "What do the Russians have on @realDonaldTrump personally, financially, & politically? The answer to that question is that only thing that explains his behavior & his refusal to stand up to Putin," tweeted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Crazy? Extreme? Consider this tweet from Ari Fleischer, the former George W. Bush press secretary and a skeptic of Trump election collusion with Russia, after Trump declared his faith in Putin’s denial of interference: “When Trump so easily and naively accepts Putin’s line about not being involved, I can understand why Ds think Putin must have the goods on him.”
Such were the aftershocks after a news conference that was astonishing and surreal — even by Trump standards — after his meeting with Putin in Helsinki. Standing alongside the Russian strongman, Trump said, "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."
Who's right? Trump went with Putin. "I don't see any reason why Russia would interfere in the 2016 election," he said.
Trump, who has been ripping into allies with abandon, passed up the chance to fault Russia for anything at all — not its aggression in Ukraine, not its support for Syria's murderous dictator, Bashar Assad, not the murder and imprisonment of Putin opponents and journalists, not the nerve agent attack on an ex-spy in Britain. Trump set the tone in a tweet before the meeting, choosing to blame America first — pre-Trump America.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” (That was retweeted by Russia’s foreign ministry with an approving comment: “We agree.) But now, Trump said he is fixing it. "We have taken the first step toward a brighter future," he said.
Whether put in place by Trump or Barack Obama, the nation's intelligence chiefs have reached the same conclusion: The Russians did it. So has the Justice Department, which last week announced the indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence agents as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
"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," said the Trump-appointed director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, after the Helsinki news conference.
Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that Trump's performance "rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous."
Sidestepping away from Trump's side
Trump's buy-in with Putin was too much even for two Long Islanders who have been part of the House Republican chorus charging anti-Trump bias motivated the FBI's Russia investigation, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
"Opportunities like today must be better seized to tell the Russians to stay thousands of miles away from American elections,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin. "Wrong for President Trump to deny Russian interference in election. ... Putin is a liar and Russia is an aggressor," said Rep. Peter King.
More scathing comments came from Republicans who have been critical of Trump in the past, such as Sen. John McCain: "Today's press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory . . . The president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant."
Said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele: “That's how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler.” Among the few Republicans defending Trump was Sen. Rand Paul, who scoffed at both parties "beating their chests" on Russia. For more reaction, click here.
Et tu, Michael...
One has not always turned to former Trump lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen — famous for the $130,000 Stormy Daniels payment — for wisdom on matters of foreign affairs and U.S. institutional strength. But in a further sign his break with his president, the long-loyal Cohen tweeted this on Monday night:
"I respect our nation’s intelligence agencies who determined that Russia, had in fact, interfered or meddled in our democratic process. I repudiate Russia’s effort ... and call on all Americans to do the same.”
Janison: Co-conspiracy theorists
Trump and Putin took turns deflecting questions about Russian election interference by attacking their respective political enemies, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
In Trump's case, that means "the witch hunt," Democrats and the media. For Putin, it was Bill Browder, the banker-turned-human-rights activist, and liberal political philanthropist George Soros, a perpetual target of right-wing conspiracy theories in both the United States and Eastern Europe. One reason Browder's name may be familiar: When the Russians came to Trump Tower in 2016 offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, it was about a supposed connection to Browder.
Trump also returned to the "Where is the DNC server?" story, suggesting skulduggery by the Democratic National Committee in not turning over its server to the FBI after early warnings it was hacked. That's been part of a broader conspiracy theory in right-fringe media trying to divert blame from the Russians and suspicion away from the Trump campaign. The reality is that it wasn't out of the ordinary, as Axios explains.
Putin was asked directly: "Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family? He didn't give a direct answer.
Alluding to the unverified rumors in the Steele dossier about Russian intelligence agents collecting compromising material on Trump when he was in Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, Putin said, "Back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."
But Trump's pageant associates have said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to set up a meeting, but couldn't because the Russian leader had a schedule conflict, and Putin later sent a gift with a personal note. Promoter Rob Goldstone — a key figure in later setting up the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer — tweeted Monday that Putin knew "for sure" that Putin was aware of Trump's presence.
After Putin's answer, Trump chimed in that if there was compromising material, "It would have been out long ago." Well, no, blackmail only works when there is a threat of exposure.
Putin was asked the same question later in a Fox News interview. “We don't have anything on them,” he replied.
Putin: He's my guy
Trump has tried to make the case that Putin really wanted Hillary Clinton to win the election.
But Putin said Monday that Trump was his choice "because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal."
Who else but Trump would credit Putin with "an interesting" and "an incredible offer" for proposing that Moscow and Mueller investigate together any accusations of election meddling?
Read it, see it, for yourself
What else is happening:
- Federal prosecutors revealed the arrest of a Russian national, Maria Butina, on charges of working as a covert agent for Moscow. Court papers said her activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 campaign and included efforts to use contacts with the National Rifle Association and American politicians to gather intelligence for Russia. Butina tried to set up a Trump-Putin meeting in 2016, The New York Times reported.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, asked how the summit went, said "fabulous . . . better than super."
- Putin presented Trump with a soccer ball to mark Russia's hosting of the just-concluded World Cup, which will be held in the United States in 2026. Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted: “If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”
- Hillary Clinton tweeted on Sunday: "Great World Cup. Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?" She followed up Monday: "Well, now we know."
- Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country can "no longer completely rely on the White House." After Trump's slams on Germany and NATO last week, Maas said, "Europe must not let itself be divided, however sharp the verbal attacks and absurd the tweets may be.”
- The Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, a significant shift in policy, as it seeks a way out of the 17-year war in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported.
- In 2018 races around the country, some Republicans — and a few Democrats, too — are imitating Trump, branding opponents with unflattering nicknames, tweeting in all caps, circulating false information and calling their hometown newspapers “fake news,” The Washington Post reports.