Donald Trump, standing alongside President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, hosted a fairly brief White House press conference yesterday, which included some notable discussion of Russia.
Towards the end of the event, for example, a reporter asked the American president about Finland’s possible role in U.S.-Russia relations, and whether Finland “could be of assistance.” Trump largely ignored the point of the question, instead answering, “Finland is respected by Russia. Finland has been free of Russia, really – just about one of the few countries in the region that has been – for 100 years. And Russia has a lot of respect for Finland, so that’s always good.”
Putting aside Trump’s comfort in speaking on Russia’s behalf, the answer was plainly wrong: Russia invaded Finland in 1939. Hearing the president say Finland has been free of Russian interference was a bit like watching Gerald Ford’s infamous 1976 debate gaffe about Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the American president simply didn’t know what he was saying yesterday – it’s a key aspect of his m.o. – or maybe Trump was briefed and just wasn’t comfortable saying something critical about Russia. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Indeed, consider this exchange from the same press conference:
Q: As President Niinisto told, he’s been raising the issue about the security situation in the Baltic region and the Baltic Sea, specifically, and has been concerned about the Russian planes flying there without transponders on. So my question to you, Mr. President, would be: Mr. Trump, would you consider Russia as a security threat?
TRUMP: Well, I consider many countries as a security threat, unfortunately, when you look at what’s going on in the world today.
He just won’t criticize Russia. Ever.
In isolation, there’s nothing especially wrong with an American president acknowledging that the country faces a variety of security threats, but there’s a larger context to this: Trump is in office thanks in part to Vladimir Putin’s espionage operation, and even now, no matter the circumstances, he simply can’t bring himself to say a discouraging word about the American adversary.
I’m reminded of this New York Times piece from a few weeks ago on one of the few people on the planet Trump won’t criticize.
Ever since Mr. Trump jumped into political life, Washington has scratched its collective head over his curious affinity for the strongman of the Kremlin. But the president’s determination to avoid saying anything even remotely critical of Mr. Putin was brought home in stark relief on Thursday when he twisted himself into a knot over a question about the Russian leader’s decision to order the United States Embassy to slash its staff by more than half. Rather than complain, Mr. Trump expressed gratitude. […]
Speaking to reporters again on Friday, Mr. Trump said his comment from the day before was only meant to be sarcastic. But he still offered no criticism of Mr. Putin, and Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did not respond to a question about why the president remains so reluctant to do so.
If there’s an innocent explanation for this, I’m not sure what it is.