In retrospect, there was bound to be confusion over this week’s Helsinki Summit, its purpose and results, particularly when it came to any private meeting between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. After all, one is a serial liar, a professional propagandist and imperious egomaniac who has no more regard for facts and the truth than he might for a speck of lint on his lapel. And the other is president of Russia.
Actually, that’s probably not fair. As a former KGB officer and current strongman dictator, Mr. Putin certainly has a curriculum vitae loaded with experience in truth-disregarding, too. But in Finland and for days afterward, he may well have felt upstaged by President Trump whose shifting explanations of what happened at the summit, how he views election meddling and his intelligence services and even how he got along with Mr. Putin continue to, err, evolve.
But before we review the multitude of corrections to the record, we should also marvel at one other upshot from this week’s Helsinki disaster (as opposed to last week’s one-man assault on our NATO allies in Brussels disaster): the extent to which the Republican Party, once the home of hawks, cold warriors and arch critics of Barack Obama’s diplomatic outreach, is now so captive to Mr. Trump that most saw nothing wrong with their man’s performance. It’s not clear if that includes his denial of Russian interference in the last election and his subsequent denial of that denial — a.k.a. the “would” versus “wouldn’t” double-negative debate (as in “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be” Russia behind the election hacking). Surely, it has to be one or the other or both.
Not only have most of the congressional GOP (with a few exceptions, none in leadership and most on their way out of public office) given the president a pass on the episode, a recent poll by Axios and Survey Monkey found that while a robust majority of Americans disapprove of President Trump’s performance at the Helsinki news conference, 79 percent of Republicans support how Mr. Trump handled that moment with the press. Seventy-nine percent! Who knew that so many Republicans wanted to see the leader of the free world act so admiringly and approvingly toward the fellow who regularly orders the assassination of his enemies? Or perhaps they were just anticipating the subsequent rewrite of that episode that was to come.
The latest revision was on the CBS Evening News on Wednesday when the president attempted to firm up his account of how he told Mr. Putin that the U.S. would no longer tolerate election interference. Instead of expressing uncertainty about whether that interference actually happened as Mr. Trump initially did in Helsinki or his more recent claim that that was a slip of the tongue or that Russia is or isn’t currently interfering (Lord, it’s exhausting to recall all these flip-flops), he “let him know we can’t have this” and that “we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
If all these amendments to reality were not taxing enough, there was President Trump on his social media account complaining that the press just wasn’t smart enough to understand the great things that were accomplished at the summit. "So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki," he tweeted Wednesday. "Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!"
Oh, yes, about that. What exactly did Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin discuss behind closed doors? Or, to put it another way, how could anyone possibly believe the participants, so does it matter? Small wonder some Democrats in Congress want to have the U.S. translator testify. It’s clearly their best shot at getting an honest account. Meanwhile, there’s ample room for speculation — for example, about the case of Bill Browder, the American investor whom Mr. Putin wants dead because of the corruption he helped uncover in Moscow and the Russian oligarchs he’s inconvenienced, Mr. Putin among them. Did President Trump make some promise to rescind the 6-year-old Magnitsky Act? Might that be the whole purpose behind Russia’s election interference in the first place?
Such speculation would have seemed wildly unfair during any other presidency. Under Mr. Trump, it’s like the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” on steroids. Was he lying then or is he lying now or is he about to lie? Good luck sorting it out.
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