Paul Connew looks at whether Donald Trump fatally wounded his presidency after his meeting with Vladimir Putin.
The New York Daily News front page said it all. Under the headline ‘Open Treason’, a cartoon showed Donald Trump shooting Uncle Sam in the head while a bare-chested Vladimir Putin looked on triumphantly.
It was, of course, a play on Trump’s 2016 election boast that he could ‘shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue’ without losing support. But it also captured the feeling that America’s 45th president might just have shot himself in the head in Helsinki.
The big question is whether this self-inflicted injury will prove fatal, of whether the current sense of cross-party outrage engulfing America deflate as swiftly as the big, orange, nappy-clad blimp that symbolised the protest mood in Europe last week. Even before that extraordinary Helsinki summit press conference, Vladimir Putin’s team suggested that only ‘baby steps’ would figure in the negotiations with the US president. A joke, surely?
Putin certainly played Trump like a baby, first making him wait by arriving late in the Finnish capital after his successful World Cup glory, and then by appearing insouciant – even a trifle bored – by the whole summit business, while allowing his loose-lipped rival to come across as a manchild desperately craving attention and seeking approval.
If Trump was hoping to blusteringly deploy his downgraded ‘Art of the Deal’, TV reality show star weaponry into a diplomatic PR victory, he was totally outgunned by the cunning, murderous former KGB supremo with sharper wits and the knowledge that had all to gain and his counterpart all to lose simply by being in the same room together in the global spotlight.
This was the summit without the normal diplomatic sanity of an actual agenda. A summit that Trump had suddenly sought rather than Putin, although it suited the Russian leader only too well to be publicly courted.
This was the ill-planned summit that POTUS wanted against the advice of many of his senior aides and diplomats; the summit that began with Trump again defying wiser heads by agreeing to meet Putin alone for well over an hour with only their translators present and the normal note-taking protection dispensed with.
This was the summit for which Putin, as ever, had prepared meticulously while POTUS preferred preparing for Putin by putting on his Scottish golf course and giving CBS TV an incendiary interview in which he painted the EU as a bigger ‘foe’ to the US than Putin’s Russia.
The decision to even go-ahead with the summit after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s detailed indictment last Friday of 12 of Putin’s senior GRU intelligence agents for allegedly cyber-hacking and leaking the emails of senior Democrats during the 2016 election had been challenged by Democrats and some senior Republicans.
The indictments and, according to my sources, further pending indictments against certain American citizens close to Trump, his family and his campaign team only fuel the fire that we’re now truly talking the cyber –age equivalent of the Watergate office break in that ultimately brought down The Donald’s political hero, Richard Nixon.
There was added irony, of course, in that the latest round of Mueller indictments came on the day Trump was meeting a humiliated Theresa May at Chequers and the Queen at Windsor, off the back of his ignorant, arrogant intervention in the Brexit debate, his impertinent promotion of Boris Johnson as a great prime minister and in the wake of a NATO summit in Brussels in which the US president branded the Western Alliance ‘delinquent’ in terms that could only have been the sweetest music to Putin’s ears.
If nothing else, the Mueller indictments should have deterred the American president from staging a mano a mano session with Putin in the absence of his senior team, such as Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security adviser Bolton. (My information is that both men did try, without success, to dissuade Trump from going it alone).
Inevitably, when Trump then cravenly backed Putin’s denials of any Russian dirty tricks during the election campaign and effectively disowned the entire America’s intelligence community’s evidence, he pulled the trigger on a US political gunfight in which Democrats and Republicans alike took turns to take pot shots at their own president.
Their fury only compounded by Trump blaming previous US administrations and the ‘rigged’ Mueller probe for the state of US/Russian relations, together with his abject failure to effectively tackle Russia’s cyber warfare activities, the annexation of Crimea, their military intervention in Ukraine, the Salisbury nerve gas outrages and Russia’s responsibility for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner above Ukraine with the loss of 300 innocent lives. (Despite the 4th anniversary of that carnage coinciding with the Helsinki Summit).
Against the backdrop of the latest Mueller investigation, millions of Americans found themselves echoing the question aired by Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats minority leader in the House,’ What’s Putin got on him?’ A suspicion savvily exploited by Putin himself at The Helsinki presser when asked by a US reporter if the Kremlin held ‘kompromat’ information via smiling slightly, pausing long enough to spark giggles and gasps among the assembled press corps before delivering what added up to a non-denial denial.
Or sharing the sentiments of former CIA chief John Brennan who tweeted that Trump’s kowtowing to Putin was ‘nothing short of treasonous’. Or Republican senator Jeff Flake, ‘ I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian president and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful’.
Senior Democrat Senator Adam Schiff weighed in with: ‘President Trump just attacked our intelligence and law enforcement agencies for doing their jobs while standing next to a dictator who intervened in our election to help Trump’. He was far from alone in calling on senior members of Trump’s national security and White House staff to resign in protest at Trump’s Helsinki ‘sellout’.
But, strange as it might seem, there are some positives to emerge out of the wreckage of both Helsinki and the Great Narcissist Disruptor’s wrecking ball European odyssey in Brussels and Britain.
Away from Trump’s hardcore ‘White Nationalist’ support base, there are conservative Americans who pride themselves on their patriotism, admire the nation’s institutions, fly the flag over their porches and take offence at a US president standing alongside a Russian ‘foe’ leader shamelessly denigrating and denying America’s intelligence services out of transparent self-interest.
These are the Americans whose reaction at the ballot box Republican party strategists will be sweating on when the first forensic post-Helsinki opinion polls emerge with the crucial November mid-term elections looming.
And what will have Trump himself sweating heavily is that this time a ‘fake news’ assault on the MSM simply won’t work. The global media’s cameras captured live his capitulation to Putin, witnessed The Great Disruptor out- disrupted by a far more ruthless, skilful autocrat.
This time,too,POTUS’s beloved Fox News turned against him, with words like ‘disgraceful’ and ‘dangerous’ and ‘shameful’ being bandied about by normally Trump-lauding conservative presenters and pundits. If enough of Conservative-voting America does start to turn after the Helsinki horror show, then you can bet Rupert Murdoch won’t be far behind.
While in Britain, the Trump factor could impact positively on Brexit too. Being tipped for prime minister by The Donald might just be the kiss of death for Boris Johnson’s ambitions and Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox’s willingness to embrace being a trading ‘vassal state’ of an America whose president seems only too willing to sell European friends short to curry favour with our foe in the Kremlin.
Meanwhile the intensifying collaboration now happening between the Mueller team and UK investigators over the role of Cambridge Analytica and its associates on both sides of the Atlantic in both the US election (*more indictments looming) and the Brexit campaign could yet undeniably destroy the legitimacy of the EU referendum result and swing public opinion irresistibly behind a People’s Vote on whatever deal/no deal Theresa May (or her successor) end up with.
If/when that happens, perish the thought The Donald might even have done us an historic, game-chnging favou