US President Donald Trump was doing pretty well in Helsinki, really, laying out a modest but achievable agenda for improving US-Russia relations. And then came the final question about whether Trump believed his own intelligence chiefs or Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and in his weird, waffling answer, you could almost hear the fabric of his presidency rip at the seam.
Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press was the reporter who asked Trump bluntly: “who do you believe” about Russian election interference, Putin or US intelligence? Trump initially spun some conspiratorial nonsense about missing Democratic computer servers and Hillary Clinton emails. And then this unforgettable statement:
“My people came to me, (US Director of National Intelligence) Dan Coats 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. ... I have confidence in both parties.”
“It was unbelievable,” said a stunned Will Hurd, a Republican congressman from Texas and former CIA officer. “I would never have thought I’d see an American president being played by a foreign adversary in that way.”
You could argue charitably that Trump was just being polite and didn’t want to offend the Russian leader standing next to him. But that doesn’t excuse how Trump chose to end the press conference, by attacking former FBI special agent Peter Strzok as a “disgrace” and calling the Russia investigation a “total witch hunt” -- while the man who our intelligence agencies say ordered the covert-action assault looked on.
Direct questions have a way of eliciting telling behavior, even from practiced liars. That’s the theme of a book called “Spy the Lie” by three former CIA officers. They argue that a practiced observer can detect deception without wiring the subject to a polygraph machine. One sign is verbal deflection, as in Trump’s immediate, spurious mention of missing servers and emails; another is visible stress on the subject’s face, as some might describe Trump’s smirks and grimaces. Taken together, such indicators can reveal deception.
As Trump said, “this will probably go on for a while,” before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III delivers conclusive evidence. But Mueller has already taken the Russia investigation to a new level with Friday’s indictment of 12 GRU military-intelligence officers for seeking to manipulate the 2016 campaign by working with co-conspirators “known and unknown.”
Until Lemire’s fateful question, I thought Trump and his advisers were managing the Helsinki summit quite sensibly. The two leaders discussed the right agenda: extending the SALT treaty and beginning other arms-control talks; cooperating on stability and humanitarian relief in Syria, including Syria-Israel peace negotiations to stabilize their border; sponsoring contacts between US and Russian militaries to reduce dangerous confrontations.
Trump didn’t make any egregious concessions on these issues, so far as I could tell. Before the summit, he had seemed ready to endorse Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But according to Putin, “he continued to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.” Bravo for that. Trump even pushed for US gas exports that would challenge Russia’s energy dominance in Europe.
On the larger question of Russian-American dialogue, the Helsinki meeting also seemed headed in the right direction. Moscow and Washington do need to improve relations, in a way that doesn’t appease Russia or legitimize its bad behavior. What sensible person would disagree with Putin’s hope that “the Cold War is a thing of the past”? Or Trump’s argument that “we’re going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests”?
It was the right music, until the record skipped when Trump was asked the “who do you believe” question. Then this summit became crazy time, and those last few minutes are all that many people will remember. As former national security adviser Tom Donilon put it: “The president of the United States was standing next to a foreign adversary rejecting the judgment of his own intelligence and law enforcement services. We’ve never had anything like this in American history.”
What was reassuring Monday was that the US intelligence official Trump had just undercut affirmed his oath of office, after his commander-in-chief equivocated. Coats issued a one-paragraph statement in mid-afternoon. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence.”
Coats’ simple, stirring words were a reminder of how and why America endures.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)