It has been a week since the grotesque and now infamous Helsinki summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. But the passage of a little time has not dulled the shock of watching an American President grovel and debase himself in front of a Russian autocrat. An ethnic Russian analyst at the Brookings Institution described the joint press conference as follows. “Here Putin takes the role not only of grand statesman but even as ventriloquist. Trump just nodded enthusiastically and let Putin run the show.” The American President “comes across as fawning, as keen as ever in his absolute unwillingness to criticize Putin.” No wonder the Russian Foreign Minister described the meeting as “fabulous … better than super!”
This summit was a long held objective of Putin — to get on stage on equal footing with the U.S. President. President Obama, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would not hold such a meeting. It is a near certainty that the national security team around Trump (Bolton, Pompeo, Mattis, Kelly) did not want it. This was Trump’s idea and his alone. Up until this point, the sequence of events was unusual and even troubling but not beyond the pale. That happens when Trump insists that he will meet with Putin alone with no advisors or senior officials present. No one except a translator. This is truly bizarre, without precedent and virtually screams out that Trump has something to hide.
A two-hour meeting ensues and not a single person in the U.S. government knows what Trump agreed to. In the joint press conference that followed, Putin declared the meeting a “success” and that Russia stood ready to “implement” their “agreements.” The body language was unmistakable: Putin confident and in charge, Trump the eager supplicant. When a reporter asked Trump whether he criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Putin responded to the question on Trump’s behalf. Trump did not offer a solitary word of criticism concerning Russia’s attack on the U.S. elections but he waxed eloquent about the Special Counsel’s “witch hunt” in Washington.
It is worth recalling what actions Putin has taken that provide the backdrop to this summit. It is a grim and sobering list.
+ Putin has killed or imprisoned all serious political opponents in Russia and has put all national media under the Kremlin’s thumb. Russian “democracy” has become a bad joke.
+ Putin’s assassins have been busy outside Russia, most notably in London where exiled Putin critics have had a habit of dying prematurely. The most recent example involved the attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer using a powerful Soviet-produced nerve agent.
+ Russia violated international law and every norm of state behavior by invading and dismembering a sovereign European country, Ukraine.
+ Russian military forces shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine killing all 198 passengers.
+ Moscow has a long record of cyber attacks against the small Baltic countries, notably Estonia.
+ Russia attempted to foment a military coup against the government of Macedonia to prevent that country from joining NATO. Trump publicly suggested that the U.S. would not defend Macedonia as required under the NATO treaty.
+ Russian government “trolls” mounted cyber attacks on German and French elections and the British vote to leave the EU. But the most ambitious and far-reaching attacks were directed at the U.S. Presidential election with the aim of sowing discord and supporting the election of Donald Trump. When asked in Helsinki whether he favored Trump over Clinton, Putin responded, “Yes, I did.”
+ US Intelligence agencies report that Russian efforts to sabotage American elections are still ongoing and that Russian hackers are currently mapping U.S. infrastructure (water systems, power grids, railways) looking for vulnerabilities.
Perhaps the most graphic moment in Helsinki came when Trump was asked whether he accepted the unanimous conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Trump responded: “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it should be. … President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
All this and much more has led U.S. intelligence professionals to ask a profoundly disturbing question: “Is Donald Trump, to all intents and purposes, a Russian asset?” In the formal sense the answer is probably “no.” He is too undisciplined, too indiscreet, too obvious to be an agent. What is far more likely is that Donald Trump is a classic instance of what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot,” a foreigner who wittingly or unwittingly serves Russian state interests. The mere fact that such questions can even be asked puts the professionals who staff American intelligence agencies into an impossible bind. If you are a clandestine agent, do you continue to risk your life and those of your contacts under such circumstances? Will other nation’s intelligence agencies continue to share hard-won secrets on Russia when they do not trust the American President? If you are one of those preparing briefing material for the President and you have very sensitive information on Russia, how do you handle it? The question is not academic. We now know that President-elect Trump was briefed on a human source with direct knowledge of Putin’s personal authorization of cyber attacks on the U.S. 2016 election. In the world of intelligence, this kind of information is as valuable and sensitive as it gets. And the source who provided it was putting his or her life on the line.
By the way, President Trump has announced his intention to invite Putin to visit the White House this fall.