The most intriguing question concerning the 12-day Asian marathon tour of US President Donald Trump was whether he would meet with the Russian leader, as the participation of both presidents at the APEC Summit in Vietnam offered a pretext for it. No full-fledged meeting between Trump and Putin took place. Nevertheless, as reported by the media, their paths crossed on three occasions during the summit, including when a group photo was taken, where the two blue-shirted leaders are shown shaking hands.
But the real sensation came after the summit with a statement by the American president that Putin was insulted by allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election. “I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump was quoted by the AP news agency as telling reporters aboard the presidential aircraft.
When one of the journalists asked, “Do you believe Putin?” Trump replied: “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I did not do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
This brief conversation between the two leaders was confirmed by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as well. As he told journalists at Da Nang, Trump had really raised the subject of interference, and Putin “categorically rejected even the hypothetical possibility that Russia could somehow interfere in the US electoral process.”
Let us recall that the entire US intelligence community, including more than a dozen agencies, made a joint statement this January declaring that they considered Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election to be effectively proven. This interference is the subject of a special investigation conducted by the US Department of Justice, as well as several separate investigations launched by several committees of both chambers of the US Congress. Recently, these investigations have been uncovering more and more fresh evidence of such interference. However, Russia and Trump continue to deny it, and the latter benefited from it during the election.
John McCain, who chairs the Senate Committee on Armed Forces and frankly said long ago that when he looked in Putin’s eyes, he “saw three letters – a K, a G, and a B,” was one of the first to respond to the abovementioned Trump’s statement on Putin. “There is nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community. There is no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous Assad regime, which remains the greatest obstacle to a political solution that would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive, but also places our national security at risk,” reads the senator’s statement, which has been posted on his web page.
Former Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates called such a statement by Trump, made on Veterans’ Day to boot, “disturbing and shamelessly unpatriotic.”
Meanwhile, Democratic US Representative Ted Lieu wrote on his Twitter page: “I have seen the classified information on Russian hacking. @realDonaldTrump has received classified briefings. I can tell you that @POTUS is LYING. Trump knows the Kremlin hacked America last year.”
Against this backdrop, the following tweet by Trump looks very strange: “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help.” After all, everyone knows well how Russia “helps” resolve conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorny Karabakh, and now in the Donbas. It simply freezes them in order to take complete control of the former Soviet republics which seek to join the EU.
The Day asked American experts to comment on the resident of the White House’s statement that he trusted Putin against the backdrop of the US intelligence community’s statement about the Russian interference in American elections being proven.
John HERBST, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council; former US Ambassador to Ukraine; Washington, D.C.:
“It has been clear for at least a year and a half that President Trump has a peculiar affinity for the Kremlin. We also know that the President says things that do not necessarily become US policy. Still, this is unfortunate.
“It has also been known for some time that President Trump does not consider human rights a priority. So his decision not to raise human rights in Beijing is also no surprise. It is important for an American President to raise human rights matters in their proper context.
“The Da Nang incident has followed a well-trodden path. First the President said something naive about the Kremlin. When slammed for this by critics, he defended his initial remarks, as he does in the comments you cite. But then there is a well crafted statement by the White House and/or the President distancing him from his initial remarks. That too has happened. So, the President winds up in a satisfactory position after a gaffe or two.”
Steven PIFER, senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Brookings Institution:
“I find it astonishing that President Trump would ask President Putin whether Russia had meddled in the US election. What did he expect? That Mr. Putin would answer, ‘Yes, Donald, we did?’ It is even more troubling that Mr. Trump appeared to take at face value Mr. Putin’s assertions that Russia did not interfere in the US election. In doing so, he is taking the word of a former KGB officer over that of the US intelligence community. I note that shortly after Mr. Trump’s remarks were reported, CIA Director Pompeo reaffirmed the view of the US intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the election.
“I would like a better relationship between the United States and Russia. But it is difficult to see that happening without some change in the Kremlin’s egregious misbehavior (such as invading neighboring countries and interfering in the US presidential election). It is not apparent that President Trump understands that.”
Adrian KARATNYCKY, senior research fellow, US Atlantic Council; Myrmidon Group LLC, Washington D.C.:
“President Trump has both stated that he believes Putin AND that he trusts his intelligence service. Clearly, this is something more than a case of cognitive dissonance. What is at issue, is that Trump wants nothing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his election, and so he uses every possible opportunity to make clear there was no Russian interference in his shall. This, in my view, is the main motive for such statements. At the same time, I believe that by making such statements of blind trust in Putin’s assurances only increase the degree of suspicion in the US public. Ideally, he should take a more nuanced position: Russia interfered and this is a serious attack in US interests BUT Russian interference did not have any impact on the US presidential election results.
“Like so many presidents before him, Bush, Obama, etc. Trump believes he can build a strong and constructive personal relationship with Putin. He is wrong. So long as Russia has imperial objectives and wants to undermine US influence, and weaken the effective functioning of the democracies, no personal relationship can lead to constructive Russian behavior. Only pressure and the deterrent threat of force can work.”