Russia takes lead after Helsinki summit while Trump waffles on election interference

Seven days have passed since the high-profile summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the U.S. still has no clear picture of what was accomplished or agreed to by the two leaders.

The view from Washington

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has only admitted to an agreement to continue discussions and a future meeting between the two leaders.

The ambiguity regarding whether or not agreements were made at last week’s meeting brought criticism from both sides of the aisle.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday on CNN:

“I don’t care what they talked about; I care about what we do. You can talk to Putin all day long. Here’s what I want to know: What did you agree to do with him, and give us a chance to see if we think it makes any sense.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee tweeted:

Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution offered this summary:

“The problem remains that Americans do not know what agreements were reached in Helsinki. They could be good or bad. The Trump administration should fix this as soon as possible by disclosing what the president agreed to at the summit. Until it does, given the obsequious manner in which Trump deals with Putin, the White House should not be surprised that so many assume the worst.”

Despite these criticisms, Trump continued to insist that his summit with Putin was a huge success.

Several senior national security officials told the Washington Post they have yet to be briefed on the Helsinki summit, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with the president on Thursday; however, other top military officials are still expecting a readout from the president or his national security adviser, John Bolton, this coming week.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who participated in an expanded meeting with aides following the one-on-one between Trump and Putin, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday following a strong push by committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

The view from Russia

In response to a tweet by Trump in advance of the summit, calling out U.S. “foolishness and stupidity,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with their agreement:

In the wake of the summit, Russian officials have begun sending proposals to the U.S. based on “verbal agreements” they assert were reached in Helsinki. On Friday, Russian Defense Ministry officials reportedly submitted a proposal to Washington regarding the return of Syrian refugees to their homes.

The Assad regime, backed militarily by Putin’s Russia, is responsible for the flight of many of the refugees who feared for their lives in the wake of ghastly attacks — including the use of chemical weapons — against Syrian civilians. Yet Russian officials assert that a return of as many as 890,000 refugees could return to Syria from Lebanon in the near future; 300,000 from Turkey and 200,000 from European Union countries.

Putin also sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox News for an oft-contentious interview but insisted overall his meeting with Trump was a huge success. The Kremlin has touted the entire affair as a public relations victory, as they sought to place the Russian president on equal footing with his U.S. counterpart on the world stage.

One analyst said of the post-summit press conference, “it was everything the Kremlin could have realistically hoped for.”

Continued fall-out from Helsinki summit

Still simmering in the background is Trump’s stand on the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His comments in Helsinki triggered a groundswell of criticism after he called into question the reliability of the U.S. intelligence community and referred to the Mueller probe as a witch hunt — all while standing side-by-side with Vladimir Putin on foreign soil.

His statements drew such bi-partisan criticism that the president issued a clarification, stating he had misspoken. Since then, Trump has issued numerous conflicting statements, first coming out in support of the U.S. Intelligence community and then calling the entire probe a hoax, witch-hunt and fake news.

While Russia continues to shape the narrative of the Helsinki summit, Trump continues to take aim at his own perceived adversaries: the U.S. press and his own FBI and Justice Department.

What Americans think

A Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that more Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of Helsinki than approve:

33 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin while 50 percent disapprove. A sizable 18 percent say they have no opinion. A slightly larger 56 percent disapprove of Trump expressing doubts about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. On both questions, those who say they “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s performance outnumber those who say they “strongly approve” by better than 2 to 1.

As for the Russia Probe, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the following:

 . . . a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of Russia (53%). . . . a majority of Americans (51%) also believe it is likely that authorities will find evidence of an illegal relationship between the Trump administration and Russia.  A similar number of Americans (56%) report believing that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election with the goal of helping then-candidate Donald Trump win the election. This belief is held most strongly among Democrats (81%), but interestingly, a third of Republicans (32%) also agree that Russia worked to influence the election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.


[Brookings] [Reuters] [NBC News] [Ipsos] [Photo courtesy AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais via Indian Express]