What Do You Do Now, US National Security Leaders?
A key senator says Trump violated his oath of office. An ex-CIA boss says his defense of Putin was “nothing short of treasonous.”
It’s over. The charade is over.
President Donald Trump stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he believed the former KGB leader, and not the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities, that Russia did not and does not interfere with American elections, including his own in 2016.
"The Russian state has never interfered and is never going to interfere with into internal American affairs, including election process," Putin said.
In a Helsinki press conference for the ages, Trump sided with the former KGB colonel against the United States of America over and over. On spying. On Syria. On military relations. On camera. On the record.
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It was so pointed that about two hours after the press conference Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a defensive statement against his boss.
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
So what do you do, now? If you are an intelligence officer, a spy, an analyst, a Pentagon official, a diplomat, a general, admiral, senator, or congressman, what do you do now? For some appalled members of Congress, the condemnation came swiftly.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the president violated his oath of office.
“For the President of the United States to stand next to Vladimir Putin — who personally ordered one of the largest state-sponsored cyber-attacks in our history — and side with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders is a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries,” said Warner, in a two-sentence statement. “If the President cannot defend the United States and its interests in public, how can we trust him to stand up for our country in private?”
Immediately following Trump’s performance, former CIA Director John Brennan said, in a tweet, “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a lengthier, more blistering statement on Trump: “Our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are.
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” McCain said. “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.
“President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.”
McCain continued, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said, “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.”
Each of these national security leaders — one Democrat and three Republicans — have long been critical of Trump, and the president’s defenders will dismiss them all. It’s the rest of the national security and political leadership who must absorb and respond to Trump’s latest performance.
There’s one measure that indicates Trump’s is a more serious offense than usual. Typically, after high-profile moments like this event, members of Congress flood reporters’ inboxes with reaction statements, eager to get some press. On Monday, inboxes were noticeably silent, even hours after the event.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham was one of the only ones to react quickly. At times a defender and critic of Trump, one of the senior-most national security leaders in Congress, gave Trump a relative pass on Russia.
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections. This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” Graham tweeted minutes after the press conference.
Then he added: “Meddling & collusion are NOT the same thing. Russia did meddle in 2016 election & are trying it again. I’ve seen no evidence of collusion, plenty evidence of Russian meddling. Russia didn’t beat Clinton. Trump beat Clinton. Bad day for the US. Can be fixed. Must be fixed.”
More pointed criticism came from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. The Iraq veteran and Air National Guard pilot said: “The American people deserve the truth, & to disregard the legitimacy of our intelligence officials is a disservice to the men & women who serve this country. It’s time to wake up & face reality. #Putin is not our friend; he’s an enemy to our freedom.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a conservative member of House committees on armed services and intelligence and a former staffer to President George W. Bush, tweeted, “As I have said many times before, but worth repeating today. I believe Russia is an adversary and we must continue to work with our allies to counter Russia’s influence around the world. I disagree with the President’s statement today. Russia has a track record of meddling in elections - not only ours in 2016, but around the world. I support the Mueller investigation in getting to the apolitical truth.”
The protests are familiar, if louder, but will they lead to any new action beyond the Mueller investigation?
Maybe? House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., issued a statement saying, “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Trump to sit for an interview with Mueller, told Republicans to end their attacks on Mueller’s team and hold congressional hearings with Trump’s national security team who were in Helsinki. “If you think the press conference was bad, imagine what happened inside when the president and Mr. Putin were alone. We need answers. We need them now.”
Since before Trump became president, his go-to defense has been to cast doubt on or outright deny that operation and all U.S. officials’ findings linking Russian intelligence closer and closer to his presidential campaign. On Friday, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russians for doing just that. Since then, and into Monday’s press conference, the president continued to deny “collusion,” and claimed the indictments of Russians but no Americans exonerates him and the campaign.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Trump said.
“There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. And people are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they're going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.
“That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And, frankly, we beat her — and I'm not even saying from the standpoint — we won that race. And it's a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it. People know that, people understand it. But the main thing — and we discussed this also — zero collusion,” Trump said. “It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous what's going on with the probe.”
Putin spoke next. “As to who is to be believed and to who's not to be believed, you can trust no one,” he said. “Could you name a single fact that would definitely prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned...So there's no evidence when it comes to the actual facts. So we have to be guided by facts and not by rumors.”
The key exchange in Helsinki that has drawn outrage was this: Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire asked Trump who he believes, the U.S. intelligence community or Putin, regarding the 2016 election attack. Trump began his response by deflecting, asking where were the Democratic National Security server and Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 emails.
And then Trump said this:
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [DNI] Dan Coats came to me and 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. But I really do want to see the server.”
Trump then repeated it, an American president siding with Russia..
“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,” he said.
Trump then supported Putin’s idea, presented in their meeting, to have the U.S. hand over the intelligence community’s evidence against 12 indicted Russian spies and let Russia the suspects.
Trump called it “an incredible offer.” Here’s what was in the offer.
“Any specific material we are ready to analyze together,” said Putin about the evidence contained in the indictment. “For instance, we can analyze them through the joint working group on cyber security, the establishment we discussed during our previous contacts,” Putin said, referring to a brief conversation the two leaders had last July.
On the question of extraditing the indicted men, Putin said such efforts should be conciliatory, but did offer to “interrogate” them on Mueller’s behalf.
Putin, finally, was asked directly if he had any compromising information on Trump or his family. The dictator scoffed at the suggestion, but did not deny it.
“Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow,” Putin said. “It's difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this. Well, please, just disregard these issues and don't think about this anymore again."
Trump jumped in to say if any compromising evidence existed, “it would have been out long ago.”
The president then again called the investigation into his campaign “a total witch hunt. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.”
And Trump and Putin walked away together.
Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.
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