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The summit offered up a graphic reaffirmation of what was already known
THE story of the meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki has a beginning and an end, but no middle.
It began with a statement from the American president. The lowly state of Russo-American relations, he tweeted, was not the fault of the Russian government for seizing Crimea, shooting down a passenger airliner, interfering in America’s presidential election or using a banned nerve agent to kill citizens of a close ally on its own soil. No, it was the fault “of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt”.
It ended with a joint press conference that John McCain, a Republican senator, described as, “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
In the middle was a void, in which the two presidents met with nobody else in the room but their interpreters. For those who watch Mr Trump daily and have observed his habit of being confrontational with other people when at a safe distance and then seeking to please them when face-to-face, this encounter seemed freighted with risk. Would he give away Crimea by mistake? Would he commit to some Russian-led military initiative in Syria? In fact this part seems to have gone relatively well. Both presidents reported that they talked about nuclear weapons, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) which covers short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. The chances of them signing an extension to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) are perhaps greater now than they were before the meeting. That is not nothing.
Yet it is hard to pinpoint a decisive change in American foreign policy that came out of the Helsinki meeting. What it offered instead was a reaffirmation of things that America already knew about its president. Mr Trump thinks that the world benefits when America and Russia have close relations, and that “the United States has been foolish” on this point. He takes the judgment of America’s intelligence services that Russia intervened in the 2016 election campaign to be a personal insult, an accusation that he needed outside help to beat Hillary Clinton. He will readily believe the word of a former KGB agent over the views of the CIA or FBI on this point. Americans who question this are liable to be described by their president as enemies of the people. The probe run by Robert Mueller is “a disaster for our country”. It was jarring to see Mr Trump say these things standing on a podium next to Mr Putin, but they are all things he has said before, countless times. This is not a performance. He really means it.
One part, near the end of the press conference, is worth quoting at length to give an unmediated sample of the president’s thinking:
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