Hussain Abdul Hussain
For the first time since his candidacy, President Donald Trump has managed to unite Republicans and Democrats against him. In his statements during the press conference that followed his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki, Trump said that he had heard from US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, about Russian interference in America’s elections in 2016, and that he raised the issue with Putin, who denied the charges. Trump added that there is no reason that makes him believe that Russia interfered.
Taking the side of a foreign leader against fellow Americans was seen as an act of treason, by former CIA Director John Brennan, who Tweeted calling on “patriotic Republicans: Where are you?”
Republicans were not far behind. For the first time in a few years, Fox News, the Right wing channel, launched a scathing attack against Trump -throughout the day- following his Helsinki statements. The channel’s anchors, analysts and pundits were clear: Putin is an enemy, not an ally, and US presidents should never pick sides with foreigners against Americans.
Fierce criticism: From Fox News, to Congress, and Right wing media websites, the Republicans were in unison against Trump’s friendly overture to Putin. House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the US intelligence had already announced that Russia intervened. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not an ally,” Ryan said in a statement.
Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker, said that Putin “only understands the language of strength.” Corker accused Trump of giving the impression that America was a weak nation, a pushover.
Meanwhile, Coats responded to Trump’s statement by issuing his own, in which he reiterated the consensus among US intelligence agencies over Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, and argued that the US intelligence offers “objective and untarnished” reports with the purpose of protecting American national security.
On his way back aboard Air Force One, President Trump must have been watching the backlash on TV. He therefore Tweeted a statement in which he renewed his confidence in America’s intelligence agencies, this time arguing that America and Russia should forget the past and get along, because they are both nuclear powers, an explanation that did not help calm down the storm against him.
By taking sides with Putin over his own intelligence, Trump therefore deflected attention from the summit, in which the two leaders discussed a host of issues, including the nuclear arsenal of both countries, and foreign affairs, including Ukraine, Iran and Syria. Americans, however, were not in the mood of commenting on whatever discussion Trump had with Putin. With the summit, Trump reaffirmed an American popular suspicion that he was “in the pocket of Putin,” to put it in the words of Brennan. Even radical and influential Right wing websites, such as Drudge Report, led with the headline, “Putin dominates in Hel,” a play on the word hell and the shortening of Helsinki.
Turning point: With the affirmation of the impression that Trump was in Putin’s pocket, there was no point of analyzing whatever the two leaders talked, whether privately or publicly. After all, Trump has been doing all of Putin’s bidding, from an American perspective, believing Putin over US intelligence and refusing to sell Ukraine weapons even though Trump has been begging America’s allies to buy more arms to keep American factories — and their workers — busy.
In Syria, Trump had previously announced exactly what Russian officials repeatedly asked for in public: The withdrawal of US troops, estimated at two thousand, from Syrian territory east of the Euphrates.
The only point that Trump seems to part ways with Russia over is Iran. Unlike Putin, who announced that his country — alongside Europe and China — was staying in the nuclear deal with Iran, the deal that Trump withdrew from on May 8, Trump has made it his mission to undermine the Iranian government.
Senior White House officials have repeatedly said that Trump intended to trade with Putin over Iran. Trump would be ready to grant his Russian counterpart whatever Moscow demanded, including conceding on the Crimean Peninsula and Syria and lifting the US sanctions on Russia, in return for Moscow breaking with Tehran and joining Washington in besieging the Islamic Republic. Trump also wants Iranian militias out of Syria.
Skeptics in Washington have rebutted such argument by saying that there is little incentive for Putin to join Trump in confronting Iran, since the US president has already granted Moscow its demands. While Congress has approved, almost unanimously and with votes from both Republicans and Democrats, new sets of sanctions on Russia, Trump has tried to veto them, and when the vote came veto-proof to his desk, Trump chose not to impose any of the sanctions that Congress had recommended. While Trump wanted his meeting with Putin to look like Reagan-Gorbachev in 1986, his summit with Putin came across showing that he had some debt to pay to Putin.
Instead of Trump forcing Russia to stop interference in US elections, an interference that Americans are in consensus that it happened and might happen again soon in November, he tried to whitewash Russia in a step that backfired badly, and that might cost the president politically. Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki does not seem to have contributed to writing history, but seems to have been more of a turning point in the history that will be written about President Trump.