Russian President Vladimir Putin waves after a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, left, after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

 

President Trump had the ability to make a lot of points for himself and for the GOP in Helsinki. Perhaps to the surprise of only a small number of people, he declined to do that and in the process may have damaged himself.

To understand, at least in my view, why this summit took place and what happened there one has to look at how Trump views the Russia investigation.

The Russia investigation has two parallel tracks: one legitimate and one not so much. The legitimate track is what is covered in Mueller’s original charter. It is a counterintelligence investigation into Russian information operations directed against the United States in 2016. Here I’m going to completely agree with Rand Paul. This is what nations with geopolitical interests do. Obama did his damnedest to defeat Netanyahu, even to the extent of loaning DNC and Obama campaign operatives to Netanyahu’s opponent. Mexico uses its consular system in the US to focus American citizens of Mexican extraction on issues of importance to Mexico. It is fair game to expose Russian operations to the sunlight and impose sanctions where they went beyond the point of fair play. In my opinion, we’ve already done that. The second track of the investigation is nothing more than lawfare waged by people who refuse to accept the results of November 8, 2016. This track is not only not legitimate it is patently dishonest. The objective is to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that his campaign “colluded” with Russia. There was collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign. But it involved Hillary Clinton, the DNC, Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele and a dossier that was compiled almost exclusively from sources with ties to the FSB and SVR and Russian Foreign Ministry. In fact, a good case can be made that the sole purpose of this meeting was to say f*** you to the people who are pushing this investigation.

For Trump, the two investigations appear to be one. So to credit the assessment of the US Intelligence Community that Russia mucked about in the 2016 election is to implicitly concede that he won because of the Russians and that he was in collusion with the Russians. That isn’t a correct assessment but, as I’ve said many times, in communications P=R, that is, perception equals reality. To Trump, the two investigations are one and he treats them both with the disdain the second investigation completely deserves. Trump had the chance to acknowledge the obvious while continuing to combat the “witch hunt” aspect of the investigation. Because he doesn’t see them as different, he didn’t.

Today, in Helsinki, Trump refused to acknowledge that the Intelligence Community and even allies like Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy are correct. He seemed to credit Putin with some insight into what had actually happened. Trump goes full-metal-Obama and blames the US equally with Russia for the poor relationship between the two nations (eliding over Ukraine, the shootdown of Malaysia Air MH-17, the annexation of Ukraine, assassinations of regime opponents outside the country, the use of Russian mercenaries against US forces in Syria, etc., etc.) And then Putin effectively tells Trump to “squeal like a pig” when he says that he wanted Trump to win the election.

Trump did have a chance to effectively “reset” the US-Russia relationship–something that is critical to US interests in North Korea, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe–and do it in a way that demonstrated that he knew who and what Putin is. I don’t think he did that. I think by focusing on Mueller and not focusing on the US and Russia that Trump came off looking weak.

Will this have an impact downstream? It’s hard to say. It will definitely energize the Russia-collusion conspiracy theorists and give new life to the narrative. It will give Putin a boost in his domestic politics. It is going to make a lot of our allies queasy because Trump came off looking rather obsessed with the Russia investigation and distracted from the bigger picture. It probably gives Mueller a bit of a boost and changes the story about his investigation.

All in all, this was probably the most damaging moment of Trump’s presidency. How he handles that when the reality begins to sink in is anyone’s guess.

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