In Helsinki, Finland on Monday, President Trump met with Vladimir Putin of Russia for a private meeting. Afterwards, at the news conference with the press, President Trump and Putin stood at podiums side by side.
Seven U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The main goal of the interference was to undermine the United States’ trust in democratic institutions—in essence, to perform an attack on democracy itself. The Senate Intelligence Committee stated, “The Committee concurs with intelligence and open-source assessments that this influence campaign was approved by President Putin.”
There is bipartisan agreement that Russia meddled in the election. The only person who seems to disagree with the findings? President Trump himself.
On Monday President Trump legitimized Putin’s claim that he did not meddle in the U.S. elections and ostensibly aligned himself with the Kremlin instead of his own Department of Justice.
Although before the meeting President Trump had said he would bring up the issue of Russia’s interference with Putin, his words were still shocking.
On a world stage, the President of the U.S. said to the press, “People came to me. Dan Coats came to me and some others. They said they think it's Russia [interfering in the election]. 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.”
This comment has been enough for top Republicans in the House and Senate to break with their president about his performance against Putin.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” said Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. “That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence.”
Ryan said that the United States must hold Russia accountable in order to protect itself and other democracies from similar attacks in the future.
Senator John McCain took an even stronger stance on the president’s comments in Helsinki, describing them as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
This critique has been echoed, in varying degrees, by many Republicans and Democrats troubled by the sight of their own president publicly aligning himself against so many U.S. institutions and with Putin, the Kremlin, and Russia—a country not commonly considered a U.S. ally.
On Tuesday, President Trump retracted the statement due to backlash over his alignment with Putin over his own country. He claims that he misspoke. He meant to say, “ I don't see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.”
This damage control, while not very compelling even if it is true, is almost entirely irrelevant. What matters most is that President Trump of the United States failed to state his confidence in his own government, intelligence agencies, Senate, and House. On a world stage, President Trump appeared as a weak leader compared to Vladimir Putin, unable to contradict the lies that Putin told, and chose to instead protect his win in the election, his ego, and a Russian tyrant.