In an appalling spectacle that dismayed even some of his own supporters, President Trump stood next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday and threw the U.S. intelligence community under the bus.
It’s obvious that no amount of evidence will budge the president from his reluctance to acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or that it continues to pose a threat to American democracy. Even a year and a half into his presidency, he seems to regard any admission that Russia intervened as undermining the legitimacy of his election victory.
In his opening statement at Monday’s joint news conference, Trump said that during private talks “I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections.” But he retreated from even a token acknowledgement of reality when he answered a reporter’s question about whether he believed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion or Putin’s denials.
“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” He added: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
It is shocking that the president would give no greater weight to the longstanding, evidence-based conclusions of the CIA, NSA, FBI and the office of the director of national intelligence than he gives to the say-so of a manipulative Russian autocrat. But it is in line with his comment in reference to a previous Putin denial that “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Since then, the evidence of Russian interference has become stronger. Last week a federal grand jury returned detailed indictments charging 12 Russian intelligence officers by name with interfering in the election.
Yet instead of viewing the indictments as a reason for challenging Putin, Trump on Monday trashed the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that led to the charges. “I think that the probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said, arguing that the investigation had harmed U.S.-Russia relations. “I think it’s kept us apart; it’s kept us separated,” he said.
Of course dialogue between Russia and the United States — on Syria, nuclear disarmament, Iran, Crimea and others matters — is desirable, even essential. But the U.S. can carry on such communication without turning a blind eye to the extraordinarily serious issue of Russian interference in democratic elections here and elsewhere around the world. Fortunately, other members of the Trump administration see that clearly, as does Congress. But there is no substitute for presidential leadership on this issue. Trump made it depressingly clear on Monday that he is incapable of providing it.
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