The Intercept followed the summit meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland as it unfolded. It never stoped getting crazier.
A long-awaited summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin took place in Finland’s presidential palace in Helsinki on Monday. The summit began with a long private chat between the American and Russian presidents, accompanied by no aides or notetakers. The two leaders then joined aides for a working lunch in the former Russian imperial palace’s Hall of Mirrors and hosted a remarkable joint news conference. The Intercept covered the event as it unfolded. Here are the highlights.
Trump set the tone for his private meeting with Putin by tweeting from Helsinki on Monday morning that the United States was to blame for poor relations with Russia, and calling the investigation that exposed the hacking a “Rigged Witch Hunt.” After Putin’s plane touched down in the Finnish capital, nearly an hour late, Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs shared Trump’s tweet with the comment “We agree.”
In language that closely echoed that of Trump, on Friday the Russian foreign ministry had described the indictments as just the latest in a series of “conspiracy schemes” concocted by “Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been appointed to investigate what never happened.”
“The obvious goal of this move is to sour the atmosphere ahead of the Russian-U.S. summit,” the ministry said in a statement posted online shortly after the indictments were announced. “The influential U.S. political forces that used open lies to prevent the normalisation of our relations over the past two years have rushed to make the most of this fake news before it becomes a thing of the past,” the ministry added. “Regrettably, it has become the norm in Washington to promote fake news and initiate criminal proceedings for obvious political purposes.”
The fact that Putin was late to a meeting that takes place just across the border from his country, in a former part of the Russian empire, was described by several Moscow-based foreign correspondents as a familiar attempt to assert dominance from a president who has kept a host of world leaders waiting over the years.
Wondering how Donald Trump stacks up on being made to wait by Putin?Putin is current about 55 minutes late landing in Helsinki, taking him past Pope Francis (50 mins) and approaching Modi (1 hour). Things get bad at Lukashenka (3 hours) and Merkel (4 hours 15 min). pic.twitter.com/zyfvYazsjk— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) July 16, 2018
In comments before their private meeting, Trump said the two leaders would discuss “everything from trade to military to missiles to nuclear to China,” but made no mention of that fact that his Justice Department just indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for helping to elect him by hacking email accounts of Democrats working for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Trump also congratulated Putin on hosting a successful World Cup, but made no mention of the winning team, France, which was made up largely of immigrants or the sons of immigrants. During his visit to Britain last week, Trump had described the newly multiethnic nature of Western European countries as “a shame.”
The British commentator Nesrine Malik argued on Twitter that the triumph of the French team — following the success of a similarly multiethnic German squad four years ago — seemed like an implicit rebuke to the narrow, white nationalist view of Europe Trump appeared to endorse by saying, “Immigration will change the fabric of Europe and I don’t mean that in a positive way.”
Max Seddon, a Financial Times Moscow correspondent, noted that the World Cup result also seemed like a rebuke to the far-right nationalists Putin has encouraged at home and abroad.
With the World Cup over, the unpleasant bits of Russia start peeking out from under the carpet again. All Russians should have supported Croatia because they don't have any black players and "migrants have captured France," says the top tabloidhttps://t.co/abI2nJ45y5— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 16, 2018
The Kremlin has released a statement on the agenda for the talks which is interesting mainly in that it describes a very different focus than the subjects Trump referred to in his opening remarks. “Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will discuss ways to normalise bilateral relations, as well as current international issues,” the Russian president’s office said, “primarily the situation in Ukraine, Syria and the Korean Peninsula, and the fight against terrorism.”
The phrase “normalization” is vague, but it is hard to imagine Russia describing relations with the U.S. that way as long as economic sanctions remain in place over its seizing of Ukrainian territory and its cyber attacks on the American electoral system.
Removing those sanctions on Russian businesses, without returning Crimea to Ukraine or ending its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is a central focus of Russian diplomacy.
Trump and Putin have concluded their extended private meeting, which lasted more than two hours. There will be no official record of the exchange, since notetakers and all aides except for two translators were kept out of the room.
The Kremlin said the meeting, which was scheduled to last 90 minutes, ran for two hours and ten minutes. The White House refused to confirm even the duration.
Their working lunch in the presidential palace’s Hall of Mirrors followed.
Trump told reporters he thought the meeting was “a good start, very good start for everybody.”
The American delegation for the working lunch includes Trump’s interpreter Marina Gross, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Chief of Staff John Kelly, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and Fiona Hill, a British-born National Security Council Russia expert who wrote a psychological profile of the Russian president, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
A man holding up a sheet of paper with the scrawled message “Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty” was just dragged from the room by security moments before Putin and Trump entered the room.
Trump and Putin have exited the Hall of Mirrors and are holding a joint news conference. Here is video of the entire event from the White House YouTube channel:
In Putin’s opening remarks, he said that his American counterpart raised the issue of Russia’s “so-called interference” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He says that he told Trump, “the Russian state has never interfered and is never going to interfere” in domestic politics in the United States, including elections. If there was any such evidence, Putin says, it should be dealt with by a joint working group on cyber security he discussed with Trump at a previous meeting.
For his part, Trump says that he addressed “Russian interference in our elections” with Putin and the Russian president had “an interesting idea” about the hacking of his Democratic rivals. Trump does not say what that idea was.
Asked if there is anything that he blames Russia for, Trump says “both sides” are responsible, but only for a failure to patch up relations.
Pres. Trump says he holds "both countries responsible" for the decline of US-Russia relations: "I think that we've both been foolish...the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it's kept us apart, it kept us separated. There was no collusion at all" https://t.co/wCVoWaURxw pic.twitter.com/Szeri4OnUb— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) July 16, 2018
Trump went on to attack the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference, saying, “the probe is a disaster for our country,” and again blamed the Democrats.
Asked what Russia did to spoil relations with the U.S., Trump is unable to name one thing. Instead goes after Hillary Clinton, whom, he wants us all to know, he beat.— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) July 16, 2018
“We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president,” Trump concludes.
In response to a question about whether he wanted Trump to won the 2016 election, Putin says, “Yes I did,” in hopes of repairing ties with the U.S. He avoids the second part of the question, about whether he directed anyone to help make that happen.
Wow.— Shelby Holliday (@shelbyholliday) July 16, 2018
Reporter: Did you want President Trump to win the election, and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
Putin: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal. pic.twitter.com/Q1288ZB6Iy
(In an odd glitch, the White House video feed cut in late to the two-part question, so it incorrectly appears to show Putin responding “Yes I did,” to just the second question: “and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”)
Putin was also asked in he would consider extraditing Russians wanted by the U.S. for election tampering and said that it might be possible for Russia to question suspects on behalf of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, if the U.S. was also willing to extradite William Browder, a U.S.-born investor who has accused the Kremlin of widespread corruption.
President Vladimir Putin offered to have his Russian government interrogate "the individuals who [Robert Mueller] believes are privy to some crimes," also suggesting the U.S. and Russia create a joint cybersecurity group to "analyze together” materials https://t.co/koo3taTbtN pic.twitter.com/L0AJtbo1Mk— POLITICO (@politico) July 16, 2018
Asked if he believes his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president on the subject of the hacking of the Democrats, Trump says that he is sure that U.S. intelligence thinks Russia did the hacking, but refuses to endorse their view. “I have confidence in both parties,” Trump says.
Pres. Trump on election interference: "What he [Putin] did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that's an incredible offer, okay?" https://t.co/1nJFk7VbAM pic.twitter.com/TCgwVPwWst— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) July 16, 2018
Trump then pivots to conspiracy theories about the Democrats supposedly not cooperating with the F.B.I. investigation. “President Putin said it’s not Russia,” Trump says, “let me just say, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
He also reiterates previous attacks on Hillary Clinton for deleting approximately 30,000 emails deemed personal by her lawyers. That, he adds, would never have been allowed to happen in Russia.
Putin chimes in: “I was an intelligence officer myself, and I know how dossiers are made up,” suggesting that the Steele dossier was fake and ignoring the independent evidence gathered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Putin denies that Russia has any “kompromat” on Trump, arguing that he did not even know Trump was in Russia for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013 when, according to the Steele dossier, video of Trump was secretly recorded to blackmail him. However, the Russian oligarch who paid to host that contest in Moscow, Aras Agalarov — who also set up a meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump, Jr. during the campaign — reportedly gave Trump a gift from Putin that weekend.
Trump, appealing to that part of his base unaware of how blackmail works, adds: “If they had it, it would’ve been out long ago.”
The reviews are in, and even some of Trump’s habitual boosters were unnerved by that news conference. Neil Cavuto, a Fox Business News host, said Trump’s failure to confront Putin on the election hacking “is what made his performance disgusting.”
“It’s not a right or left thing to me, it’s just wrong,” Cavuto added. “A U.S. president on foreign soil talking to our biggest enemy — or adversary or competitor, I don’t know how we define them these days — is essentially letting the guy get away with this, and not even, you know, offering, a mild, a mild criticism, that sets us back a lot.”
John Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, was even less restrained in his criticism.
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” 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???— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Somewhat overlooked in the bizarre news conference this afternoon in Helsinki was the extraordinary moment that the Russian president claimed to have information that American law enforcement and intelligence officers were involved in what he described as a complex plot to funnel $400 million in funds illegally taken from Russia to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The claim — which electrified far-right conspiracy theorists who support Trump — was made after Putin offered to let members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team travel to Russia to question suspects. There would, however, be one “condition,” Putin said. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate, and they would question officials, including officers of law enforcement and the intelligence services of the United States whom we believe have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.”
Russian Pres. Putin says he "will look into" 12 Russian intel officers indicted last week for alleged hacking effort in 2016 election, and that he will allow special counsel Mueller's team into Russia to witness interrogations. https://t.co/eeERYnjlzD pic.twitter.com/WPca1rPXMr— ABC News (@ABC) July 16, 2018
Putin went on to claim that the U.S.-born investor William Browder — a fierce critic of the Kremlin, who has been instrumental in getting Western nations to impose sanctions on Russia — had dodged Russian taxes and contributed massive sums of money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign with the help of American intelligence officers.
“Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia,” Putin said. “They never paid any taxes neither in Russia nor the United States and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton,” he claimed.
“It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal,” Putin continued. “We have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence offers accompanied and guided these transactions,” he went on. “So we have an interest of questioning them. That could be a first step.”
The allegation, which was quickly accepted as fact by Trump supporters online, is also interesting because it appears to be a version of the conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton’s supposed ties to Browder associates that was presented to Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower in June 2016 by Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with ties to Russia’s prosecutor general.
On a related note, Rob Goldstone, the British publicist who set up that Trump Tower meeting by promising Trump’s son that it was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” just tweeted that Putin had lied earlier in the day when he said he did not know that Trump would be in Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.