It would've been pretty easy for Donald Trump to get through today's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin without making things worse for himself. Following his behind-closed-doors talks, the American president could've kept things vague, made non-committal references to "common interests," and expressed optimism about the road ahead.
The meeting still would've been controversial -- there was no reason for Trump to reward Putin like this, especially in exchange for nothing -- but the gathering in Helsinki didn't have to be an abject disaster for the White House.
But it was. After watching the post-talks press conference, it's suddenly vastly easier to believe Donald Trump has been compromised in some way by the foreign adversary that attacked the United States in order to put Trump in power.
At a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on foreign soil, President Donald Trump attacked fellow Americans -- Democrats, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and members of the news media -- for damaging U.S.-Russia relations by pursuing questions about Moscow's efforts to help him win the presidency in 2016. [...]Trump also touted several conspiracy theories related to the election, asking about the 33,000 Hillary Clinton emails he has long claimed are missing, the whereabouts of a computer server at the Democratic National Committee, and the activities of a former House Democratic staffer who some conspiracy theorists have alleged penetrated lawmakers' computers.
This is one of those important political moments that had to be seen to be fully believed. Some of the takeaways from my quickly scribbled notes:
* Putin, standing alongside Trump, insisted Russia never interfered in U.S. elections. This faced no pushback whatsoever from the American president.
* Despite the fact that he was on foreign soil, standing next to an American adversary, Trump condemned "obstructionist" congressional Democrats.
* Asked if he holds Russia accountable for "anything in particular," Trump said he blames both countries for the deteriorating relationship, before adding that the United States has been "foolish." He never got around to criticizing Russia for anything.
* As part of the same exchange, Trump proceeded to brag about his election victory and condemn the Mueller investigation -- which three days ago produced an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officials, connecting Putin's government directly to the attack. Trump proceeded to call the probe a "disaster."
* When a reporter asked Putin why anyone should believe his denials about election interference, Trump jumped in, defended Russia, and started talking about the Electoral College.
* Trump continued to peddle the Imran Awan conspiracy theory, which we already know is ridiculously untrue.
* Asked specifically if he believes American intelligence professionals or Putin, Trump gave every indication that he considers the latter more credible -- Trump praised Putin's "strong and powerful" denial, effectively endorsing the Russian leader's line -- before whining for quite a while about Hillary Clinton emails. (Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was mentioned by name as someone whose judgment Trump chooses not to fully believe. The appropriate move would be for Coats to resign today.)
* Despite the Republican line that Russia simply wanted to create division and chaos in 2016, Putin conceded today that he wanted Trump to win.
* Asked if he has incriminating information about the American president, Putin laughed, denied knowing Trump was in Russia a few years ago, but did not directly answer the question.
* At no point did Trump condemn Russian election interference -- apparently because Trump doesn't really believe there was any Russian election interference.
Historians can speak to this with more authority, but this may have been the worst performance on an international stage for any American president, ever. Trump traveled to Finland, defended an American adversary, took cheap shots at Americans, and rejected the judgment of American intelligence professionals. I felt like I was watching our president launch an assault on his own office, siding against his own country, for reasons the White House will struggle to defend.
And this was Trump's public performance. It's worth taking a moment to consider what, exactly, Trump told his Russian benefactor in private.
Former CIA Director John Brennan wrote on Twitter, "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you?"
That need not be a rhetorical question.