Donald Trump’s presidency was filled with low points, but his 2018 summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki stood out as especially indefensible. After a private meeting with the autocratic leader, in which the American president took interpreters’ notes for reasons that were never explained, the Republican held a disastrous press conference in which Trump defended an American adversary, took cheap shots at his own country, and sided with 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.”
As regular readers might recall, in the aftermath of the 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.”
In June 2021, three years after the Helsinki meeting, the former president wanted Americans to know that he had no regrets — and he stood by his decision to side with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence officials. Yesterday, as my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones noted, Trump thought it’d be a good idea to once again publicly side with Putin, publishing this missive to his social media platform:
Remember in Helsinki when a 3rd rate reporter asked me, essentially, who I trusted more, President Putin of Russia, or our “Intelligence” lowlifes. My instinct at the time was that we had really bad people in the form of James Comey, McCabe (whose wife was being helped out by Crooked Hillary while Crooked was under investigation!), Brennan, Peter Strzok (whose wife is at the SEC) & his lover, Lisa Page. Now add McGonigal & other slime to the list. Who would you choose, Putin or these Misfits?
It’s obviously a problem that Trump sided with the Russian authoritarian over his own country’s intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials. But the fact that Trump keeps doing this, for no apparent reason and to no apparent benefit, makes matters vastly worse.
What’s more, there’s a larger context to the Republican’s rhetoric, which he’s no doubt aware of. Indeed, Trump has occasionally been sensitive to the fact that his public praise for his political benefactor in Moscow has raised difficult questions about his loyalties. While in office, his own director of national intelligence feared that Putin "had something" on Trump that the Kremlin could use as leverage, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy famously joked that Trump was secretly on the Russian leader’s payroll.
With this in mind, it stands to reason that the former president, who went to almost comical lengths to make Putin happy while in office, would go out of his way not to appear beholden to the Russian, especially in the midst of atrocities in Ukraine.
And yet, as we were reminded yesterday, Trump can’t seem to help himself. I wonder why that is.