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After flirting with Putin, is Trump putting ‘America first’?

The Helsinki summit, which was intended to smooth relations with Moscow, is having the reverse effect.

Did Vladimir Putin finally become Donald Trump’s new best friend in Helsinki? Trump, who has been panting to meet with Putin, lavished his Russian counterpart with praise. His extraordinary performance is meeting with some hostile reviews, many of them centering on the suspicion that Trump truly is a creature of the Kremlin. Rather than confront Putin, he publicly cosied up to him, after remaining immured with him for about two hours with only a few translators, thereby nourishing the conviction that Putin has the goods on him. The summit, which was intended to smooth relations with Moscow, is having the reverse effect by heightening suspicions about his motives and rendering it even more difficult for him to dispose, in one fashion or another, of the Mueller investigation.

Former CIA director John Brennan called Trump’s remarks “nothing short of treasonous.” Others were also unsparing. Senator John McCain stated, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Neil Cavuto of Fox News said Trump’s actions were “disgusting” and libertarian Republican Congressman Justin Amash said “something is wrong here.” Abby Huntsman, the daughter of Ambassador Jon Huntsman, said that “no negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.” Even House speaker Paul Ryan managed to roust himself to state that Trump should recognise that “Russia is not our ally.”

For his part, Trump seemed fixated with asking, “Where is the server?“ He wasn’t referring to his waiter but, rather, the hoary controversy surrounding the Democratic National Committee as well as Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. As he is wont to do, Trump took an ecumenical view of whether or not Russia had engaged in hacking during the 2016 campaign. According to Trump, “My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, 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.” So much for his intelligence services. Trump seemed to indicate that he reposes more confidence in a swell guy like Putin than his director of national intelligence: “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.”

Trump being Trump, he may well declare tomorrow that today’s headlines are simply an instance of fake news. He likes to reinterpret his comments, engaging in retroactive revisionism. He may claim that he in fact did confront Putin vigorously during the press conference and that his inveterate enemies are simply plotting against him and Russian to judgment. The most peculiar aspect of Trump’s behavior, as Isaac Chotiner of Slate suggests, is his deference to Putin. The chaos agent, the disrupter who scowls at foreign leaders and accuses them of trying to take America to the cleaners was AWOL. As Chotiner notes, “The angry nationalism that is the defining feature of Trump’s other global policies is gone; the stated belief that everyone is out to get and take advantage of the United States is absent. In its place are warm words about friendship and togetherness and a personal style that seems completely foreign to this president.”

The real winner of the 2016 election contretemps is, of course, Putin. Putin not only managed to cast doubt over the outcome, but has Trump serving as a kind of bodyguard. It was hard to tell during the press conference where Trump ended and Putin began. The two have achieved some kind of a mental synergy. Trump didn’t even seem to mind Putin trolling him about Bill Browder and putative contributions to the Hillary Clinton campaign, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the notorious June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

Perhaps what emerged most clearly from the summit is that Trump is seeking, as far as possible, to act in concert with Putin. “There’s no doubt now that he does have an ideological agenda that’s in favor of Putin,” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution observed today. Even as his aides chafe, Trump will continue to seek to implement his vision of a new Washington-Moscow axis.

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