President Biden will travel to Geneva next week for his first in-person discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin since taking office earlier this year, and it's likely to be a contentious conversation. Among the topics Biden is likely to broach are ransomware attacks, human rights abuses, election attacks, and Russian efforts to destabilize eastern Europe.
Putin may have enjoyed four years of having an ingratiating ally in the White House, but those days have clearly passed.
Donald Trump probably realizes that there will be inevitable comparisons between Biden's meeting with the Russian autocrat and his own meeting in Helsinki with Putin three years ago, and so the Republican is eager to put a pre-emptive spin on one of the lowest points of his term. Late yesterday, Trump issued a statement boasting about the "great and very productive meeting" he had with his Russian counterpart in July 2018.
"Despite the belated Fake News portrayal of the meeting, the United States won much, including the respect of President Putin and Russia. Because of the phony Russia, Russia, Russia Hoax, made-up and paid for by the Democrats and Crooked Hillary Clinton, the United States was put at a disadvantage—a disadvantage that was nevertheless overcome by me. As to who do I trust, they asked, Russia or our 'Intelligence' from the Obama era, meaning people like Comey, McCabe, the two lovers, Brennan, Clapper, and numerous other sleezebags [sic], or Russia, the answer, after all that has been found out and written, should be obvious."
Trump concluded by encouraging Biden to stay awake during the diplomatic discussion and asking him to give the Russian leader his "warmest regards."
Even by the standards of the former president, this was a striking statement, in part because Helsinki was such a spectacular failure.
At issue is a disastrous press conference in which Trump defended an American adversary, took cheap shots at Americans, and sided with Vladimir Putin over the judgment of American intelligence professionals.
Soon after, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials "were unanimous in saying that they and their colleagues were aghast at how Mr. Trump had handled himself with Mr. Putin." One official summarized a consensus view, concluding that it was clear whose side Trump was on, and "it isn't ours."
In the aftermath of the Trump/Putin event, Axios spoke to one of Trump's own former National Security Council officials who described the situation as "a total [effing] disgrace," adding, "The president has lost his mind."
Three years later, the problem is not just that the former president is still trying to relitigate what happened, pretending his fiasco was some kind of success. The problem is also just how little has changed.
In his own written statement, Trump once again reiterated that when it comes to whom he trusts, officials from his own country or Putin's government, "the answer, after all that has been found out and written, should be obvious."
It is obvious. That's the problem.