As President Donald Trump finished his two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, Moscow was already declaring the bilateral sit-down a victory for Russia and preparing to tell the press that Trump had accepted Putin’s assurances that he did not interfere in the 2016 election.
Emerging from the meeting, which he observed along with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in an on-camera press briefing that Trump “said he’s heard Putin’s very clear statements that this is not true and that the Russian government didn’t interfere in the elections and that he accepts these statements. That’s all.”
The White House was effectively forced to play catch-up, issuing anonymous statements to dispute Lavrov’s characterization of the talks. “Not accurate,” one official told NBC.
By the time the Trump administration began pushing back, however, Lavrov’s comments had ignited a social media firestorm, and were widely accepted given Trump’s well-documented reluctance to accept the US intelligence community’s assessment that Putin tried to help him win the presidency.
“Tump’s far closer to accepting Putin’s ‘assurances’ that Russia didn’t hack the election than others in his administration, not to mention Congress and the mainstream media,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group. “I’m not surprised he didn’t make a big deal about it. After all, in Trump’s mind, to seriously take it up would be to delegitimize the validity of his own election win.”
Tillerson, for his part, said Trump had “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement,” which Putin denied.
But White House officials have continued to dodge questions about Lavrov’s remarks, without correcting his account: Aboard Air Force One, “neither Mnuchin nor McMaster deny POTUS ‘accepted’ (as Russian FM Lavrov said) Putin’s denial of US elex cyber meddling,” CBS correspondent Major Garett tweeted on Saturday.
“What strikes me is that — for the first time — we have an administration in office whose credibility is about on par with the Kremlin’s,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who served as the senior director of the National Security Council under Obama.
“When it came to conflicting accounts between Washington and Moscow, Americans used to be able to assume that the Kremlin was peddling bald-faced lies,” Price added. “With the current dispute over President Trump’s reaction to Putin’s assurances, however, this administration’s credibility deficit is coming back to bite them.”
‘We are left not knowing which side is telling the truth’
The lack of cohesive messaging coming out of the White House and Trump’s tendency to contradict his own aides — exemplified, among other things, by the conflicting characterizations of his travel ban and the events leading up to his firing of former FBI Director James Comey — has undermined trust in the administration’s official statements and made it difficult to determine what is true.
The result is that, in disputes between Washington and Moscow, “we are left not knowing which side is telling the truth,” Price said. “It’s truly remarkable that the White House finds itself in this position, but it does so solely due to self-inflicted wounds.”
To be sure, there is “no basis for trusting” the accounts given by Putin and Lavrov, said national security expert Claire Finkelstein, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. “But we have heard precious little from the American side,” she said.
Putin, who has been accused of assassinating Russian journalists and whose control of the Russian media is nearly absolute, held a press conference after the G20 where he implied on camera that the Kremlin held sway over the White House.
“We didn’t meddle, just ask Trump,” Putin told reporters. When one pointed out that the White House still hadn’t released any proof one way or the other, Putin laughed and replied: “We’ll talk to the White House and tell them to fix that.”
“We’ll talk to the White House and tell them to fix that.”
Russian media began celebrating the meeting before it even ended. Anchors remarked on its length, deciding a two-hour meeting meant that Putin must be Trump’s favourite world leader, as tabloids declared it “historic.” A Russian body language expert told Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda that Putin “controlled the situation and decided its tone,” and called the meeting “a psychological victory for the Russian president.” Another tabloid said the lengthy meeting showed Trump had become a “pragmatist.”
In refusing to hold his own press conference, Trump allowed Putin’s words — and the overall Russian narrative — to linger unchallenged until Sunday morning, when he tweeted that he “strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it.”
“I’ve already given my opinion,” Trump wrote. “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”
On Russia’s terms
But many experts have noted that the ceasefire deal, too, was negotiated on Russia’s terms.
“The cease-fire acknowledges and formalises Russia’s ascendancy in Syria, and Assad’s remaining in power post-ISIS,” said Glenn Carle, a CIA veteran. “This is a policy one can debate; but the decision gives the appearance of having earned something for the US, when in fact it does Moscow’s work, at Moscow’s behest.”
Trump added on Sunday morning that he and Putin “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”
That plan, too, has been met with incredulity. “This is like giving the alarm code to the guys who just burglarized your home. Just makes it easier for them next time,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also weighed in: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit,'” Rubio tweeted on Sunday.
Broadly, Putin has shown that he understands the workings of diplomacy to a greater degree than Trump, and “at least understands what messages he needs to send, even if they’re false or manipulated,” Finklestein said. And the biggest takeaway from the meeting, according to information warfare expert Molly McKew, is that the US and Russia “will mutually agree not to meddle with each other.”
In that sense, Trump helped to validate “a longstanding Kremlin lie that unrest in Russia is due to US interference, rather than discontent with Russia’s stagnant economy and shrinking personal freedoms,” McKew said. Trump’s Sunday morning tweets calling on the US and Russia to move forward were all but an acknowledgment that Moscow will not face consequences for its election meddling in the US and abroad.
Putin, who is deeply distrustful of global institutions, may actually have gone further in establishing common ground with western European leaders at the G20 than Trump did: The Russian leader reaffirmed his commitment to the Paris climate accords — an agreement the US pulled out of in May — at the summit, where the US was left isolated on issues ranging from climate to trade.
“Near term, it’s a ‘win’ for Putin, in that his meeting with Trump was by far the best the American president had at the G20,” said Bremmer, of Eurasia Group. “For two countries that are active antagonists, that’s saying something.”
“Trump personally wants to do a ‘reset’ with Putin, the opinion of American allies, the media, and congress be damned,” Bremmer added. “But ultimately he’s going to be severely constrained not only by that opinion, but the reality of the investigations coming down the pike. And that’s going to ultimately make US-Russia relations much worse.”
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