After meeting one-on-one for the better part of two hours in Helsinki, Finland, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin made statements and then took a handful of questions from reporters. It was some kind of, um, performance, from Trump as he sought to cast Russia's meddling in the 2016 election as a "both sides" issue even while running down the US intelligence community.
My initial take on what was a disastrous and shameful performance is here. But I also went through the transcript of the press conference and pulled out the 21 most newsworthy and noteworthy lines from Trump. They're below.
1. "I'm here today to continue the proud tradition of bold American diplomacy. From the earliest days of our republic, American leaders have understood that diplomacy and engagement is preferable to conflict and hostility."
"Bold" doesn't mean what Trump appears to think it means. "Bold" is about taking strategic chances with a clear plan in mind. "Bold" is NOT about blaming America for Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. "Bold" is NOT suggesting that Russia would have no reason to interfere in the election. "Bold" is NOT refusing to stand with your friends against your enemies.
2. "But our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that."
This comment shows both Trump's tremendous faith in his own charisma and personal appeal as well as his massive capacity for exaggeration. Remember that, according to the intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russia not only meddled in our election but did so to benefit Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. According to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Russia continues to conduct a cyber war against the US. Russia also invaded and annexed Crimea. And allegedly poisoned a former Russian spy on British soil. Despite all of that, Trump feels as though the relationship between these two massive -- and adversarial -- countries is now better because he sat in a room with Putin for a few hours.
3. "I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics."
This is Trump's best line in the speech -- a very nice piece of political rhetoric. Of course, when you go on to say that Russia and the US are equally to blame for Russia's election interference, a nice piece of political rhetoric gets buried.
4. "I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. Spent a great deal of time talking about it. And President Putin may very well want to address it, and very strongly, because he feels very strongly about it, and he has an interesting idea."
A sign of things to come in this press conference. Trump did, apparently, raise the allegations of election meddling. But he also seems to have taken Putin's word (again) that Russia wasn't involved. The "interesting idea"? Some sort of joint operation aimed at snuffing out cyber warfare between nations. Which is rich coming from Putin.
5. "Well actually, I called him a competitor. And a good competitor he is. And I think the word 'competitor' is a compliment."
Trump actually corrects a Russian reporter here after the reporter said that Trump had referred to Putin as an "adversary." Trump, here and elsewhere in this press conference (and in the run-up to it) seemed dead-set on making clear to Putin that he was a fan or, at least, a willing partner. Which is weird, because of that whole broadscale-meddling-in-our-election thing.
6. "But we have lots of sources now and the United States is much different than it was a number of years ago when we weren't unable to extract what we could extract today. So today we're number one in the world at that, and I think we'll be out there competing very strongly."
Uh, so, um, what?
7. "I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame."
This is a line that will live in infamy. Trump, asked directly, "Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular," responded with this there's-plenty-of-blame-to-go-around response. It's a stunning response to what should be a very straightforward answer: Yes, I believe our intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia actively meddled in the election to help me, hurt Clinton and sow chaos. It's hard to properly contextualize what it means when the American president, standing beside the Russian president, says that he can't say whether Putin or the US intelligence apparatus is to be believed.
8. "There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. And people are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they're going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign."
This is part of Trump's extended answer on the question of whether he holds Russia accountable "for anything in particular" in regard to the election meddling. To the extent I could make any sense out of Trump's defense here, it's clearly wrong. He says that the special counsel's office is "going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign." But already, Trump's chief national security adviser in the campaign (Mike Flynn) and his deputy campaign chairman (Rick Gates) have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and are cooperating with Mueller's probe. So...
9. "That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And, frankly, we beat her -- and I'm not even saying from the standpoint -- we won that race."
The election ended 615 days ago. You know, from that standpoint.
10. "As you know, the whole concept of that came up perhaps a little bit before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election which, frankly, they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans."
So many things here:
a) This was a question for Putin about why Americans should believe his denials about Russia meddling. Trump interrupted to give Putin a helping hand.
b) The Justice Department began looking into possible Russia interference in the 2016 election during the summer of 2016 -- and as a result of Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos telling an FBI informant that he was in contact with the Russians.
c) The Electoral College!!!
d) The election ended 615 days ago.
11. "We won the Electoral College by a lot: 306 to 223, I believe. And that was a well-fought -- that was a well-fought battle. We did a great job."
Sure, it makes total sense to talk about the specifics of your Electoral College victory while standing next to the president of Russia. This is fine! Also: Trump wants you to know that Trump did a great job in the 2016 campaign.
12. "But just to say it one time again -- and I say it all the time -- there was no collusion. I didn't know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign."
I'm not sure if Trump is doing this purposely or not but he is radically redefining what collusion means here. So it's only collusion, according to Trump, if he and Putin conspired to help him get elected? Answer: No. That Trump and Putin didn't even know one another is totally immaterial to the question of collusion. It's uniquely possible that someone other than Trump within his campaign colluded with the Russians to help the billionaire businessman to get elected. That, of course, might not be the case too! But the fact that Trump didn't even know Putin -- according to Trump -- doesn't disprove there was collusion.
13. "And every time you hear all of these, you know, 12 and 14 -- it's stuff that has nothing to do -- and, frankly, they admit these are not people involved in the campaign."
One word salad, coming up! If I had to guess, what Trump was going for here was his "13 Angry Democrats" attack on the Mueller probe. But that is a guess.
14. "We ran a brilliant campaign, and that's why I'm President."
"Brilliant campaign" > "great" campaign.
15. "One little thing I might add to that is the helping of people. Helping of people. Because you have such horrible -- if you see -- and I've seen reports, I've seen pictures, I've seen just about everything."
"Richard Gere's a real hero of mine. Sting. Sting would be another person who's a hero. The music he's created over the years, I don't really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that. I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I'm selling? No. Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm gonna give it my best shot." -- Hansel.
16. "Well, our militaries do get along. In fact, our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders, for years."
I bet you didn't know that the Russian military and the US military get along really, really, ridiculously well. So now you do.
17. "So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server -- haven't they taken the server. Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?"
Trump's answer came in response to this question from the Associated Press' Jonathan Lemire: "Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What -- who -- my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?"
The quote above is the first thing that Trump said after Lemire asked the question. And, yes, it is a total and complete non sequitur. The question is whether Trump believes that Russia meddled in the election (as the intelligence community said they did) or Putin (who says, "very strongly," that they didn't.) None of that has anything at all to do with the hacked email server at the Democratic National Committee. Nothing. (Read this from CNN's Katelyn Polantz to understand the whole hacked server mess.)
18. "My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
Donald Trump believes the Russian president. And doesn't believe the US intelligence community. it's right there in those lines. Amazing. And terrifying.
19. "What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They're missing; where are they?"
This is Trump still answering Lemire's question! As to what ever happened to the "Pakistani gentleman:" His name is Imran Awan and he pleaded guilty earlier this month to making a false statement on a bank loan application. The government admitted as part of Awan's plea deal that he never stole information from the DNC servers or the servers themselves. The President of the United States is engaging in InfoWars-level conspiracy theories here.
20. "So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
[narrator voice] He doesn't have any sort of confidence in his "intelligence people." If he did, he would believe their unanimous conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him and hurt Clinton. Instead, Trump chose to believe Putin.
21. "It would have been out long ago."
Trump's explanation for why Russia doesn't have any "Kompromat" on him is that it hasn't come out yet. Which is, um, an interesting way to dispute whether any such compromising information exists.
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