Witcover: In Helsinki, we witnessed the self-immolation of Donald Trump

In what was perhaps the most astonishing public performance by an American president in history, Donald Trump personally bolstered the case for the demise of his presidency Monday in his surrender to Vladimir Putin over the Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election.

Despite the extraordinarily extensive U.S.intelligence confirming it in Mr. Trump's hands going into the Helsinki summit, he blatantly rolled over before the world via television, failing to accuse Mr. Putin or indicate any punitive action against Russia.

It was another case, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which an American and a Russian leader figuratively stood eyeball-to-eyeball and one of them blinked. This time it was our leader who blinked, failing to push Mr. Putin and allowing him to wriggle away with a ludicrous offer for a joint inquiry into the matter that will never happen.

Mr. Trump went into the summit with his eyes wide open. He apparently thought he could appease his way through with more of his self-delusion that he has a political bromance working with the Russian dictator and former KGB intelligence mastermind.

But his previous bland observations that he had asked Mr. Putin about the meddling and accepted his word that there was "no collusion" was openly challenged this time, by questioning from an American reporter following their joint press conference,.

Jeff Mason of Reuters noted that Mr. Trump had tweeted that morning that it was "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity" and now the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election that brought relations to their current low point. Mr. Mason then asked him: "Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular?"

Mr. Trump responded that both countries had acted "foolishly" for not having a dialogue on differences "long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office" -- another reference to his favorite target, predecessor Barack Obama.

Beyond repeating that he had already asked Mr. Putin about the meddling and gotten a denial, Mr. Trump tried to let it go at that. But the press -- what Mr. Trump continues to call "the enemy of the people" -- just kept asking and dug Mr. Trump's hole deeper.

Mr. Putin not only repeated his flat denial but suggested a joint U.S.-Russian investigation. Mr. Putin at one point suggested: "Any specific material, if such things arise, we are ready to analyze together. For instance, we can analyze them through the joint working group on cyber security, the establishment of which we discussed during our previous contacts."

Before an international audience, Mr. Trump launched into his old recitation of how he had won the American election over Democrat Hillary Clinton with his clear electoral college decision. It was as if he were addressing some Trump Country rally in a conservative southern state and reminding the crowd of his legitimacy.

When Mr. Putin was asked by the Reuters reporter why "Americans and President Trump should believe your story that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, and will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials" indicted by the Mueller probe, Mr. Trump broke in.

As if again addressing a campaign crowd, he crowed that the whole controversy somehow had evolved from the fact that "the Democrats lost an election, which frankly they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is for Republicans. We won the electoral college by a lot."

There was candidate Donald Trump back on the campaign trail, reviewing why he was president rather than demanding that Mr. Putin admit the meddling of his minions in the American democratic process.

Mr. Putin in turn concluded by mocking the whole concept of trust between international leaders: "Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me and I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America and I defend the interests of the Russian Federation." Then he reiterated Mr. Trump's line on collusion: "This is utter nonsense, just as the president mentioned."

It was an historic and memorable summit indeed, and another reason why Americans should ponder how much longer Donald Trump should be speaking for them before the world, or for that matter here at home.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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