This Week in Trump-Russia News: What more could Vladimir Putin have asked for?
It’s not yet clear if President Donald Trump colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election — special counsel Robert Mueller is still investigating that.
But what did seem clear on Monday, as the president parroted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points during a shocking joint press conference in Helsinki, was that, regardless of what happened during the campaign, Trump is advancing Russia’s interests right now.
Facing the media after his controversial one-on-one with Putin, Trump publicly sided with the strongman over his own intelligence agencies, cozied up to the routine human rights abuser and seemed to welcome a proposal to turn American officials over to the Kremlin in exchange for 12 Russians who allegedly attacked the United States election system in 2016.
At least Trump got a soccer ball out of it.
The summit — which Trump maintains was a success — put the White House on defense for the entire week, and the administration is still attempting to dig itself out from under the mess.
Here’s what you need to know about the Helsinki debacle — and what’s coming next after a wild week of Russia news.
Trump capitulates to Putin in Helsinki
The Helsinki summit seemed doomed from the beginning.
Trump didn’t have much of a plan to speak of heading in, and the timing of the meeting could hardly have been worse; the president had spent days berating longstanding American allies during a tumultuous trip to Europe, and his Department of Justice announced charges against a dozen Russian intelligence officials right on the threshold of the meeting.
But somehow, the summit seemed to be even more of a debacle than one could have anticipated.
After Trump met with Putin one-on-one, the two took to the podiums for what would be one of the most controversial press availabilities of a presidency characterized by them.
He appeared to accept Putin’s denial of election interference and even suggested that the U.S., the victim of the attack, shared some of the blame for it. He bashed the Mueller probe as a “disaster” — even though that same investigation had, days earlier, provided the clearest account yet of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election and sought to hold some of the Russian intelligence operatives who participated accountable for it.
And, in what would become one of the most beyond-the-pale remarks of the presser, appeared to welcome a proposal by Putin that involved turning over an American diplomat and others to Kremlin investigators who believe they were complicit in “crimes.”
“I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said during the press conference.
Helsinki summit ignites bipartisan firestorm
The summit triggered a swift, across-the-board backlash on Capitol Hill and beyond.
Democrats were quick to slam Trump — but they haven’t been shy about criticizing the president, who “endangered” America in Helsinki, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted in the wake of the meeting. What was more notable this week was the criticism Trump faced from his side of the aisle, which has largely appeared skittish about standing up to him.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the frequent Trump critic who has been away from Washington as he battles brain cancer, was perhaps the strongest in his criticism, saying in a statement that Trump on Monday had turned in “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said. “Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are — a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
Trump spends the week playing defense
Most Republicans weren’t quite as forthright in their criticism of the president, though.
Many, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, did not mention Trump by name — and most appeared reluctant to name any concrete actions they’d be willing to take to back up their disapproving statements.
Still, the outpouring of confusion and outrage on Capitol Hill that followed the summit forced the White House to go into damage control, with Trump and his administration desperately reversing, clarifying and deflecting on a number of the president’s statements during and after the meeting — all with varying degrees of believability.
First, there was the matter of whether Trump took Putin’s side or that of American intelligence agencies during the presser. He took the former’s, but on Tuesday he chalked that all up to a minor verbal stumble — he said “I don’t see why it would be” Russia that meddled in the 2016 election, but, he told reporters in the Cabinet room of the White House Tuesday, he meant to say “wouldn’t be.”
“I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself,” Trump said.
Then, during a meeting with his Cabinet Wednesday, a reporter asked the president if he believes “Russia [is] still targeting the U.S.” — as American intelligence says they are.
“No,” Trump said.
That kicked off a second round of clean-up, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claiming that Trump was actually saying “no” to further questions.
But she added to the mess later in that same daily press briefing, suggesting that Trump was considering Putin’s proposal to allow U.S. investigators to observe the questioning of the dozen indicted Russians if Trump would turn over individuals who championed the Magnitsky Act — a notion Trump said Monday was an “incredible offer.”
“There was some conversation about it, but there wasn’t a commitment made on behalf of the United States,” Sanders said. “And the president will work with his team, and we’ll let you know if there’s an announcement on that front.”
That sparked another firestorm, and on Thursday the administration reversed course again, with Sanders saying that the president “disagrees” with Putin’s proposal.
But that it took several days to turn down the offer is “probably the lowest point of his presidency,” according to Bill Browder — the American-born British investor who led the campaign for the Magnitsky Act and was one of the individuals Putin wanted Trump to turn over.
“It was a remarkable and unacceptable position to take,” Browder said in a phone interview. “The fact that it took him three days to retract that statement makes me question his judgement.”
Lawmakers openly question Trump’s ties to Russia
Despite the reversals, a chorus of voices on Capitol Hill and beyond have openly raised questions in recent days about the possibility that Trump is compromised by Putin.
For nearly two years, particularly since the words “pee tape” entered the political lexicon, politicians have alluded to the possibility that Trump is in Putin’s pocket, but have largely avoided saying so directly.
But after his performance in Helsinki, major political leaders and other prominent Washington figures have explicitly speculated that Putin may have something on Trump and suggesting that his actions were “treasonous.”
Democrats also say they will demand answers about what transpired during Trump’s one-on-one with Putin, during which — Russia implied — he made agreements without any other staff there and only translators present.
“We need to know what happened at the meeting,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a phone interview.
New developments break in investigations
All this drama played out against the backdrop of major new developments in the FBI and DOJ investigations surrounding Trump and Russia.
Shortly after Trump’s controversial press conference with Putin, the DOJ revealed it had arrested and charged a Russian gun rights activist over attempts to exploit Americans and American organizations — namely, the National Rifle Association — to advance Russian interests.
Maria Butina sought to “exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having an influence in American politics” and to “infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation without prior notification to the attorney general,” prosecutors said.
Russia has said the charges against the 29-year-old are “fabricated” and called on the Trump administration to release her.
She is currently being jailed, as prosecutors have argued she is a flight risk.
Her arrest — which was not directly related to the Mueller probe but underscores Russia’s attempts to meddle in U.S. politics — came at the beginning of one of the most turbulent weeks of Trump’s presidency so far. To bookend that, the week ended with a bombshell out of the separate but somewhat-related FBI investigation into Michael Cohen.
The New York Times on Friday reported that the FBI had obtained a recording of Cohen and the president discussing a potential payout to a Playboy model who allegedly had an affair with Trump — a tape, acquired during an April raid on the longtime Trump attorney and fixer, that a source later told CNN is “not good for the president.”
The Cohen saga first came to the public’s attention in April, when the FBI raided him under Mueller’s referral. While the lawyer has long been one of Trump’s most loyal aides, he has increasingly seemed open to cooperating with investigators — something that could pose significant political, and possibly legal, problems for the president.
Trump invites Putin to White House
All of it made for one of the most controversial weeks of Trump’s presidency related to the Russia scandal so far — and the chaos isn’t likely to calm anytime soon.
In the midst of the outpouring of scrutiny over Russia, an apparently defiant Trump announced on Thursday that he would be bringing Putin to the White House this fall — apparently taking key members of his administration by surprise.
“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more,” Trump tweeted. “There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems ... but they can ALL be solved!”