It’s hard to believe that it has not yet been a week since President Donald Trump shared a stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin to give the press a taste of what they had discussed behind closed doors in their Helsinki meeting — and, since then, little has been revealed.
In less than an hour, President Trump heaped praise on Putin, said he had no reason to doubt that Russia had not interfered with the 2016 presidential elections (which counters U.S. intelligence reports), seemed to indicate a willingness to let Russia in on the investigation of said interference, and blamed everything on Hillary Clinton’s servers and e-mails.
And that was just what he said in front of reporters on Monday. Since then, there has been a frenzy of statements and clarifications. For instance, the president said he didn’t see any reason why Russia would be responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers, but later claimed he meant he didn’t see any reason why Russia wouldn’t be responsible.
The weird use of the double negative aside, this largely ignores the other times in the presser that the president let Putin and Russia off the hook.
But what’s troubling everyone — including the president’s own advisers — is what happened during the 2.5-hour meeting with Putin, in which the leaders were accompanied only by their interpreters. Especially after Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told journalists back home on Wednesday that “important verbal agreements” had been reached.
The Washington Post reports:
But officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military, scrambling since Monday to determine what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues in Helsinki, had little to no information Wednesday.
There’s also a lot of concern over reports that President Trump is actually considering offering up the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul (among other U.S. citizens), for questioning to Russian authorities. White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not rule this out on Wednesday, but moments later, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the notion “absolutely absurd.”
(The White House seemed to change course on that by Thursday, but then, it’s only Thursday and things could change yet again).
Despite having to explain what he meant and didn’t mean, the president still sees his “performance” as a success:
So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2018
Among those on the president’s lower ends of intelligence would be McFaul himself, who tweeted that he expects his government to protect him:
As I discuss in detail in From Cold War to Hot Peace, Putin has been harassing me for a long time. That he now wants to arrest me, however, takes it to a new level. I expect my government to defend me and my colleagues, in public and private.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 18, 2018
Just last month, President Trump had another such conversation with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The only others present were interpreters, and the only written document produced from the meeting in no way matched what the president said he had achieved in the meeting.
Unsurprisingly, what has emerged from talks has been a PR disaster: Attempts to forge ahead with North Korea’s denuclearization have stalled, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo totally flaming out in the talks that followed in Pyongyang. In fact, reports — which the Trump administration (at least publicly) is ignoring — indicate that North Korea is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.
The importance of getting it in writing
These sorts of “unwritten” agreements, especially with countries such as North Korea and Russia, which are, at best, “competitors” (to use Trump’s term) and worst, our adversaries, are dangerous and unprecedented, said retired ambassador Barbara Bodine.
“I can assure you it is not only not common, it is wholly unprecedented, irresponsible and dangerous,” she told ThinkProgress.
She said that only in rare exceptions (a “felonious crime,” like murder) does a state hand over its diplomats for questioning by another state.
There is the separate but related issue of even equivocating on whether an ambassador can be handed over to any government for his/her work as a diplomat. There are exceptions made, but rarely and only when there has been a felonious crime committed.
“As the State Department spokesperson said — it is ludicrous that the President even considers such a thing,” said Bodine.
And the fact that such discussions are not documented is all the more alarming.
“A state, a government, a leader is only as good as their word. Credibility, consistency and dependability are the currency of international relations — and one would assume of business, as well. This is why we have written agreements and the business world has contracts,” she added, answering questions via e-mail.
Even prior to the Helsinki meeting, there were misgivings on both sides of the aisle on having President Trump, a man who has admitted that he does not like to prepare for such meetings, sit down, unflanked by advisers, with Putin, a lifelong intelligence operator and by far the more experienced statesman.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who called for the subpoena, said, “This is an extraordinary remedy, I realize, but then it’s extraordinary for the president of the United States to ask all of his senior staff essentials to leave the room and have a conversation with an adversary.”
Bodine is aghast over President Trump’s apparent habit of shutting out his own team.
“It is also wholly unprecedented, irresponsible and dangerous to a) not at least listen to your own advisers, b) meet with no one else present, c) publicly and repeatedly discount and contradict your own administration leadership and Cabinet.”