No matter how low your expectations for the summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Monday, it was hard not to be staggered by the American president’s toady, slavish performance.
On Friday, the Justice Department indicted 12 members of Russia’s military intelligence service for a criminal conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 election and hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The same day, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, gave a speech about America’s vulnerability to cyberattacks, particularly from Russia. “I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again,” he said, comparing the threat to the one that preceded Sept. 11.
But standing beside Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Trump sided with the Russian president against U.S. intelligence agencies while spewing lies and conspiracy theories. “He just said it’s not Russia,” he said of Putin’s denials. “I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Perhaps the most sinister part of the news conference was Trump’s seeming openness to a deal in which FBI investigators could question people in Russia in exchange for letting Russians question Putin critics in America. Putin referred specifically to associates of his archnemesis Bill Browder, a businessman (and British citizen) who has succeeded in getting seven countries, including the United States, to pass laws punishing Russian oligarchs suspected of corruption. (The Russians who met with members of the Trump campaign at Trump Tower in June 2016 wanted to discuss this law, the Magnitsky Act.)
The news conference left observers reeling. John O. Brennan, a former director of the CIA, tweeted that Trump’s display was “nothing short of treasonous.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain described it as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Even some Trump partisans were aghast. Newt Gingrich decried it as the “most serious mistake” of Trump’s presidency.
While I was as shocked as everyone else, I shouldn’t have been. Trump’s behavior Monday recalled his outburst at Trump Tower after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when he insisted there were “very fine people” among the violent, racist demonstrators.
Both times, everything Trump said was in keeping with things he’d said before. The shocking part was his frankness. Then, as now, it forced, if just for a moment, a collective apprehension of just what a repulsive abomination this presidency is.
It’s always been obvious that Trump does not hold Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election, which he publicly encouraged and gleefully benefited from, against Putin. None of us yet know the exact contours of Trump’s relationship with Russia, whether Putin is his handler, his co-conspirator or just his hero. But it’s clear that Trump is willing to sell out American democracy for personal gain.
After all, on July 27, 2016, he publicly called for Russia to find Clinton’s emails, and, thanks to Friday’s indictments, we now know Russia started trying to hack the domain used by her personal office that very day. Trump’s collusion with Russia has always been out in the open, daring us to recognize what’s in front of our faces.
Some doubt that Trump is a Russian puppet precisely because his fealty to Putin is so blatant and undisguised. They should consider the case of Mariia Butina, which broke wide open just hours after the Trump-Putin meeting.
Butina, who worked for the Russian politician and alleged organized crime figure Alexander Torshin, presented herself as a Russian gun rights activist, and spent years cultivating links to the National Rifle Association. She became a fixture in some pro-Trump circles and was reportedly especially close to a conservative operative named Paul Erickson.
Last year, in a Daily Beast profile, journalist Tim Mak described Butina as hosting a birthday costume party that was attended by Trump aides. “She dressed as Russian Empress Alexandra while Erickson was dressed as Rasputin,” Mak wrote. At the party, Butina reportedly boasted that she’d helped the Trump campaign communicate with Russia. If there was a reason to doubt that she was a Russian spy, it was only that one would expect a Russian spy to be subtler.
This weekend, Butina was arrested in Washington, and on Monday, her indictment for acting as a Russian agent was unsealed. She was accused of conspiracy to “exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
There’s a useful lesson here in evaluating Trump’s behavior. Sometimes things are exactly as bad as they appear.
Michelle Goldberg has been a New York Times columnist since 2017, and is a frequent commentator on radio and television. © 2018 New York Times News Service