For over a year, Donald Trump has confronted questions about Russia’s espionage operation that helped put him in power, and the Republican’s line hasn’t much changed: Trump doesn’t believe what U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly told him about the attack.
Over the weekend, however, the American president, nearing the end of his Asia-Pacific tour, went even further to carry water for his suspected benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“[Putin] said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi following a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang.
Asked directly if he believed Putin, Trump suggested he was keen to move on to other issues. “Look,” he said, “I can’t stand there and argue with him. I would rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I would rather … get to work with him on the Ukraine.”
But moments later, Trump circled back to the issue of meddling, saying that Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” the president said.
Right, of course. A former KGB agent who now maintains autocratic rule over a U.S. adversary is responsible for the most serious attack against Americans since 9/11. What’s he going to do, lie?
And what’s Trump supposed to do, listen to the word of American intelligence professionals over that of Vladimir Putin?
Perhaps realizing that this was politically unwise – Trump spent Veterans’ Day siding with an authoritarian Russian leader over his own country’s intelligence assessments – the American president tried to hedge a bit yesterday, telling reporters he sides “with our agencies.” Those would be the same agencies Trump has ridiculed and publicly doubted since before his election last fall.
The trouble, of course, is that the damage was already done. Instead of standing “with our agencies,” a day earlier, Trump condemned U.S. intelligence findings as a politically motivated “hit job.” Indeed, the American president went after former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former FBI Director James Comey by name, blasting them as “hacks.”
Trump added that he thinks Putin “is very insulted by” the scandal – if there’s one thing the American president should be concerned about, it’s Vladimir Putin’s feelings – and that “people will die” as a result of the controversy.
He didn’t explain how or why.
At a certain level, none of this comes as too much of a surprise. Indeed, Trump has been remarkably consistent on this: the Russian leader launched an attack on the United States, and the beneficiary of that attack is willing to blindly accept the attacker’s denials at face value. If that means siding with Putin over U.S. officials, so be it.
What was new over the weekend, however, aside from Trump’s crude candor in support of Putin, was the American president’s vision for the road ahead.
“People don’t realize, Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” Trump added. “They were sanctioned at a very high level. And that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.”
It was a remarkable moment. In response to Russia’s attack, Trump has not only endorsed Russian propaganda about Putin’s government’s culpability, he’s also made the case for undoing the punishments the United States has imposed as a result of Russia’s actions.
In other words, a year after Russia’s intervention in our democracy, Trump seems alarmingly eager to help Putin get away with it and avoid the consequences for Moscow’s apparent crimes.
I wonder why that is.