Instead, Trump spoke defensively of his electoral victory and insisted that he won fair and square without Russian help. He stood next to Putin and attacked domestic political rivals, the Justice Department, and the FBI for investigating what happened while ignoring questions over his own intelligence community’s assessment that Putin did, in fact, order a sophisticated influence campaign in states that ultimately decided the election outcome.
“This was not the plan,” a US official directly involved in planning the Helsinki summit between the leaders told CNN.
Trump spoke of the 2016 electoral college map and of online conspiracy theories designed to undermine an ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in the race, questioning why law enforcement failed to seize Democratic National Committee servers that were hacked by Russian military intelligence officers and whether it was that organization – not his campaign – that had conspired with Moscow to lose the election. He called the appointment of a special counsel on Russian interference and the involvement of US persons in that effort, Robert Mueller III, a “disgrace” to the country and an impediment to his own efforts to improve ties with Russia.
But pressed directly by US reporters – who Trump has referred to as “enemies of the American people” – whether he would condemn Russia over the empirical evidence of their election meddling, Trump again declined – on the contrary, praising Putin for offering to participate in Mueller’s investigation and nodding approvingly as Putin denied his personal involvement.
Putin did not answer a question on whether he has collected compromising personal material on Trump and his family. And while he denied ordering the election interference, he did, for the first time, acknowledge he had a preference in the 2016 race.
“Yes, I did,” Putin said. “I wanted him to win.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the talks between Putin and Trump were “magnificent,” Russian media reported.
The extraordinary news conference in Finland came four days after the Justice Department released an exceptionally detailed indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, showing how they interfered in the campaign with precision by hacking the DNC and strategically releasing the Democrats’ e-mails.
“I think that the probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said, standing next to Putin at Finland’s presidential palace. “I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. People are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign.”
Trump made no mention of Putin’s invasion, annexation and occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea; of Moscow’s efforts to meddle in recent elections in Britain, France and Germany; nor of warnings from his own director of national intelligence that Russia is preparing to interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections.
US national security and intelligence officials were aghast and speechless at the performance.
“The president of the United States essentially capitulated, and seems intimidated by Vladimir Putin,” said James Clapper, a career intelligence official who served as director of national intelligence through the 2016 race. “It’s extremely disturbing.”
Chuck Hagel, a former senator and defense secretary, said that Trump “failed America” in the press conference. And John Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under former president George W. Bush and CIA director under former president Barack Obama, said it amounted to an impeachable act.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’” Brennan wrote on Twitter, referring to the threshold for impeachment. “It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican patriots: Where are you?”