UNITED States President Donald Trump is in a truly difficult position. He has been accused of belittling the findings of his government’s own intelligence services that Russians meddled in the 2016 presidential election by hacking Democratic Party email accounts of Hillary Clinton. But if he acknowledges Russia’s involvement in that election, he would be undermining the legitimacy of his own election.
Last Monday, President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, just three days after federal indictments were filed accusing 12 Russians of hacking Democratic Party emails in an effort to help Trump. The two leaders later held a press conference, in which Trump was asked about the findings of the US intelligence services. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” he said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
His statement drew a sharp answer from his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election,” he said. Russia remains behind “ongoing pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” he added.
Trump’s own party mates in the Republican Party were highly critical of his meeting with Putin and his statements in the press conference. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Trump made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant.” Speaker Paul Ryan declared there was “no question” Russia had interfered in the US election. Senior Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said Trump’s answer on meddling “will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a staunch Trump supporter, said Trump’s comments were “the most serious mistake of his presidency… and must be corrected – immediately.”
The language used by Democrats was harsher. California Rep. Jimmy Gomez said: “To side with Putin over US intelligence is disgusting; to fail to defend the US is on the verge of treason.” Rep. Adam Schiff, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump had given Putin “a green light to interfere in 2018.” Trump has announced he will run for reelection in 2018.
Under such bitter criticism, Trump said a day later that he simply misspoke. But he didn’t reverse other statements in which he gave credence to Putin’s denial of Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.
The coming election on 2019 will test whether Trump’s unexpected positions on so many issues – against immigration, a trade war against China, tariffs that have hurt America’s own allies, his criticism of the European nations, and now his siding with Putin against his own intelligence officials – will have any effect on the electorate.
His position on Putin and Russia will undoubtedly be an issue in the campaign. He sought to explain in a tweet as he flew home from Helsinki aboard Air Force One last Tuesday: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” he said. “However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past. As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along.”
This was the statesman speaking, in contrast with the politician refusing to acknowledge Russia’s meddling in the election as it would undermine his own election’s legitimacy. We will find out soon enough how the American people really see him and whether they accept his unexpected positions and decisions.