Vladimir Putin played Donald Trump like a virtuoso. There is no official record of what the two men said when they met during their extended meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last Friday, but, in the days since, the Russian president has owned the narrative while the American president has confined his comments to a series of feeble tweets.
In 2001, President George W. Bush was ridiculed for saying he looked Putin in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul." During his first term, President Obama was scoffed at for hoping to contrive a "restart" with Putin and Russia. However, compared with Trump, those two presidents now seem like masters of statecraft. Trump's body language with Putin made it look as if he were eager for a back-slapping buddy to hang out with in Hamburg. And the real language may have been even more pathetic.
The glaring issue between the United States and Russia is the contention that Russian operatives extensively interfered with the 2016 presidential election. American intelligence agencies are unanimous in their insistence that it happened. Republican and Democratic members of Congress believe the findings those agencies have presented. The only person in American leadership who has repeatedly cast doubt on the evidence is Trump and he did it again only a day before his private chat with Putin.
That is why it is easier to believe the Russian foreign minister's account of what Trump said on the subject than it is to credit administration officials. Those officials insist that Trump forcefully confronted Putin about the election hacking and manipulation. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Putin denied the allegations and that Trump accepted the Russian president's assurances.
After insisting so many times that "nobody knows" who hacked the election, can anyone honestly believe that Trump was suddenly forceful on the subject? Trump tweeted about his exchange with Putin, saying, "I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I've already given my opinion."
Exactly. And that opinion has been that American intelligence experts do not know what they are talking about.
Unlike Trump, Putin was brave enough to meet with reporters following the meeting. Of the hacking issue, Putin said: "I believe it would not be entirely appropriate on my part to disclose details of my discussion with Mr Trump. He asked, I answered him. He asked pointed questions, I answered them. It seemed to me that he was satisfied with those answers."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, unlike his Russian counterpart, refused to appear on camera, stressed that Trump is ready to shift to other issues with Russia. Trump himself said that it is "time to move forward." Not all Republicans are quite so eager to let bygones be bygones, though.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham characterized the Putin/Trump meeting as "disastrous" and said the president is hurting his own ability to govern "by forgiving and forgetting and empowering" the Russian leader while "he throws our intelligence communities under the bus."
Trump was made to look even more naive when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump and Putin had agreed to form a joint U.S.-Russia cybersecurity unit that would prevent future election interference. When criticism immediately rained down about letting the Russian fox guard the American henhouse (or polling booth), the president tapped out a tweet that pulled back from the idea, saying he did not really think it could happen.
It is pretty darn obvious that Trump really, really wants to be friends with Putin and does not actually care if the Russians are meddling in elections, here or in any other country. After all, Trump is quite pleased with how the 2016 election turned out.
And, for his part, Putin must be absolutely ecstatic. He has never had such a fan in the White House.