I wrote on Monday, in advance of the big summit in Helsinki, that this was going to be the the big finale of Donald Trump's Chaos Tour, with pyrotechnics and explosions and both he and Vladimir Putin smashing up their guitars and setting them on fire. Was it ever. The event may have ended the most astonishing political press conference ever witnessed.
I think everyone expected it to be strange. But this was downright surreal. After meeting privately for two hours, the two men faced the press and Trump essentially pledged his fealty to Vladimir Putin. He blamed America for the bad relationship with Russia, relived the glory of his election, attacked Hillary Clinton and Peter Strzok, babbled incoherently about "servers" and Pakistanis, and once again questioned whether Russia was truly involved in election hacking. He was thrilled that Putin had offered an absurd reciprocal arrangement whereby special counsel Robert Mueller's team could come to Moscow and interview Russian spies in exchange for Russian intelligence agents being read in to American espionage capabilities.
When asked if he would denounce Putin over the 2016 election interference and warn him never to do it again, Trump ranted unintelligibly about why nobody can find "the server." Then this popped out:
My people came to me, Dan Coats [the director of national intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. 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.
It's hard to believe an American president would say such a thing, standing next to the man his entire government knows ordered the interference in the election and say that, but he did. He said this too:
Putin, meanwhile, smiled like a Cheshire cat as he denied the charges. When asked if he had the "Kompromat" on Trump mentioned in the Steele dossier, the Russian leader didn't exactly deny it:
When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.
He could have come right out and admitted that he'd done it, but it wouldn't have been nearly as convincing. Trump grinned and nodded robotically at Putin's every word, looking for all the world like ... a puppet.
The reaction from the press and the political establishment has been explosive.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was compelled to speak out after thinking about it for a few hours:
The Russians are not our friends. I’ve said that repeatedly, I say it again today. And I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced.
Democrats all denounced the president's conduct, needless to say. Many came right out and suggested that Putin must have something on Trump. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded that the national security team that accompanies Trump to Helsinki testify before Congress immediately.
Both Trump and Putin gave interviews to Fox News after the summit. Trump spoke to his most devoted sycophant:
Putin spoke with the much more formidable Chris Wallace. This will give you a flavor of how it went:
Wallace tried to give Putin a copy of the recent indictments against the 12 Russian intelligence officers. Putin wouldn't take it. I'm sure Trump was terribly embarrassed that his good friend was so ill-treated, and had a word with Hannity about it later.
It's likely that the Republican establishment will soon fall back into its comfortable posture: Trump is just being Trump, and those tax cuts make it all worthwhile. But there's a slim possibility that this event will shift the dynamic simply because nobody's ever seen any president behave like this before.
Certainly there are things they could do. As James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:
Those who could do something are the 51 Republican senators and 236 Republican representatives who have the power to hold hearings, issue subpoenas, pass resolutions of censure, guarantee the integrity of Robert Mueller’s investigation, condemn the past Russian election interference, shore up protections against the next assault, and in general defend their country rather than the damaged and defective man who is now its president.
Trump just spent days treating the leaders of NATO countries as if they're his personal servants. He couldn't be bothered to learn the protocol to behave properly around the 92-year-old queen of England. He bullies everyone in his own party and the opposition. He calls the press "the enemy of the people." But with Vladimir Putin he turns into a bashful schoolboy, fawning and obeisant.
Chuck Schumer said out loud what most people who watched that spectacle were thinking:
A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Americans will continue to wonder. The only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.
In fact, in the Hannity interview, Trump sounded downright frightened:
I thought President Putin was very, very strong. I think we're doing really well with Russia as of today. I thought we were doing horribly before today. I mean, horribly, dangerously. I think it was great today, but I think it was really bad five hours ago. I think we really had a potential problem.
It's entirely possible that Trump is trying to pass this off as another example of him "solving" a crisis that doesn't exist. But when you think about it, it sounds for all the world as if Putin threatened Trump in that two-hour private meeting, and then Trump did exactly what he was told to do in that press conference. Whatever Putin has on him, it's got him scared to death.