President Trump hosted a bilateral press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday and colluded with him on a global stage.
In examining such a varied and unhinged performance, it’s important to filter out background noise, which tells us nothing new, and isolate new and specific signs of corruption that can’t arguably be characterized as twisted forms of statecraft.
Trump has left a key under the mat for Putin to meddle in future elections on behalf of Republicans, and continued to welcome more interference today, with Putin standing by his side, but this time he hinted that he’d be willing to reciprocate for such illegal assistance by allowing Putin to breach American intelligence.
The press conference went fully off the rails near the end, when rather than defend the U.S. election system against Russian meddling, Trump spouted anti-Democratic conspiracy theories, and cut the legs out from under his intelligence chiefs—particularly Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats—by accepting Putin’s election-sabotage denials over their conclusions.
Coats, et al, “said they think it’s Russia,” Trump noted. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Because Trump humiliated his own cabinet, he has revived questions about whether his comments will prompt resignations, or whether his aides and allies will remain complicit in Russian cyberattacks on the American political system. But our predicament is actually bleaker than that, and the fact that Republicans in Congress will almost certainly do nothing about what just happened effectively guarantees that Trump and Putin will soon consummate a new corrupt bargain to further subvert American democracy.
It didn’t capture the political media’s attention as much as Trump’s conduct did, but to me the most incredible moment in the press conference came when Putin divulged something he proposed to Trump during their private meeting just beforehand.
Specifically Putin proposed invoking a 1999 treaty between the U.S. and Russia that governs cooperation between the countries in criminal investigations. Under the terms of the proposal, Russian investigators, under Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s supervision, would interrogate Russian intelligence officials accused in a Friday indictment of sabotaging the U.S. election, and in exchange, the Trump administration would allow Russians to interrogate American FBI agents and spies accused of violating Russian law.
If Trump weren’t president, we’d see this for the trolling it is: Putin wants to be read into the Mueller investigation, and “in exchange” also be read into other U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence operations. A doubly destructive proposition for the U.S, with no upside. Trump called it an “interesting idea,” and an “incredible offer.”
There is next to no chance that the Justice Department would agree to such a proposal, but the precise terms here matter less than the fact that Trump endorsed the idea of sharing critical intelligence about Russia with the Russian government. Trump can and probably will cite Putin’s “offer” to attack Mueller in bad faith—if it’s not a witch hunt, why won’t Mueller interrogate the suspects?—but more importantly, he signaled his willingness to compromise U.S. intelligence and law enforcement operations, at Putin’s behest, as an implicit quo for the quid of further Russian election sabotage.
Held up against Coats’ Friday admonition that “warning lights” of further Russian cyberattacks “are blinking red,” the only plausible interpretations are that Trump welcomes the attacks, or that he is acting under Putin’s control, against his own will.
Soon enough, Trump will conscript the rest of the Republican Party into this corrupt relationship. Earlier this month Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) returned from a visit to Moscow and downplayed the seriousness of Russian election interference. This weekend, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) dismissed it as routine foreign intelligence collection, saying “we all do it,” and calling the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt.”
Trump is only one step ahead of his enablers in Congress. And if and when Russian cyberattacks target Democrats again in the near future, supporting foreign threats to American sovereignty, when they take aim at liberalism, will become an acid test for what conservatives call patriotism.