The Russian President Vladimir Putin was unusually smiley as he walked to the podium to address the press following his closed-door, one-on-one meeting with President Donald Trump in Helsinki, which lasted for more than two hours. He said he was “glad” with the outcome and that he was “grateful to Donald” for the “good conversation”.
Trump had mentioned the US inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and Putin said he had underlined that the “Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into American internal affairs, including elections.” In any case, Putin’s demeanour made clear that this was an unnecessary distraction compared to progress the two countries had made in strengthening their technical military and counter-terrorism co-operation.
In Trump’s initial remarks to the press, he, too, seemed keen to dismiss the importance of their discussion on election interference. He said he spent a “great deal of time talking about it” and Putin had offered “interesting” ideas on the subject. But the US president mainly wanted to trumpet his own greatness, saying he had selflessly set aside partisan politics to deepen US engagement with Russia and promote international peace.
Both world leaders seem to be operating in a parallel universe, but the difference between the two is that Putin understands the role he is playing while Trump is easily deluded.
A journalist from Reuters tried, valiantly, to extract a few facts from the US president. Days before the two world leaders met, the US justice department charged another 12 Russians with interfering in the 2016 US elections and hacking Democratic officials. Ahead of the meeting, Trump had issued a tweet blaming America’s poor relationship with Russia on US “foolishness and stupidity” and the “Rigged Witch Hunt”, as he prefers to call the Russia inquiry. Does Trump hold Russia responsible for anything, the journalist asked.
Trump replied that he held “both countries” responsible and added, “we’re all to blame”. He described the Russia probe as a “disaster for our country” and insisted again that “there was no collusion at all”. Trump is so obsessed with defending himself against any suggestion he could have been assisted by the Russians that he is willing to override the findings of his own intelligence community and allow a hostile, foreign nation to destabilise American democracy with impunity. “I beat Hillary Clinton easily,” he repeated for the millionth time.
Asked to warn Putin not to meddle in future US elections, Trump instead blustered about Hillary Clinton’s lost emails. Putin delivered a cool, vicious response. He said that as an intelligence officer he knows how dossiers are often made up. “I believe that Russia is a democratic state and I hope that you are not denying that to your own country,” he added.
The pair have a shared interest in denying Russian election interference. Trump wants to preserve his overblown yet fragile ego; Putin does not want the unpleasantness to affect his relationship with the most easily manipulated president he’ll likely ever encounter. But perhaps even Putin would have been surprised at how ready Trump seemed to take the side of Russia over his own intelligence community. Putin also did not directly deny that he had compromising material on Trump: the possibility that the Russian president is pressuring Trump in other ways cannot be ruled out.
Even before the meeting began, many US commentators had handed Putin victory. “In Russia, the only thing that matters about the summit is the bare fact of it. It is the hollow power gesture taken to its world stage extreme,” wrote Masha Gessen in the New Yorker. Trump had already furthered Putin’s interests, to a remarkable degree, by attacking NATO and describing the European Union in an interview with CBS News as a “foe”.
Ahead of the meeting, Donald Trump predicted that the two world leaders will end up “having an extraordinary relationship”. In many ways, they already do. Putin, a former KGB officer, is artful and manipulative, with a deep grasp of international affairs. Trump, if it even needed spelling out, is shallow, ignorant and impulsive and has an easy-to-exploit need to burnish his image as a deal-maker and vulnerability to flattery. Personality matters in international diplomacy, but rarely is it quite so decisive.
Few other substantive details emerged from the meeting. Towards the end of the press conference, Putin threw a football towards Trump saying “now the ball’s in your court.” Trump looked delighted, promising to give the football to his son Barron. It was a fitting gesture. Trump needs to feel in control, but he can be appeased with a children’s toy and Putin will always have the upper hand.