President Trump did get one thing right on Monday in Helsinki: Vladimir Putin did make an “incredible offer.”
The two leaders had discussed the dozen Russian intelligence officers indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller just three days earlier. As we’ve related, the indictment reveals nothing of importance about the Kremlin’s election meddling that hasn’t long been known. Naturally, then, its issuance prompted dark suggestions about its timing: Had a renegade Justice Department, without warning and on the eve of the summit, dropped a highly unusual indictment — one that charges officials of the foreign power whose leader the president was about to meet — in order to tie the president’s hands?
Fortunately, this conspiracy theory was quickly dashed. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had briefed the president on the indictment well in advance. Before leaving for NATO talks, Trump had been given the opportunity to direct that announcement of the charges be delayed until after his meeting with Putin.
After some deliberation, Trump’s national-security team gave the Justice Department the green light to proceed. Obviously, Putin was certain to deny Russia’s cyber-espionage operation against the 2016 campaign; having the indictment, they must have calculated, would strengthen Trump’s hand in the confrontation. Perhaps they hoped that, despite all his tirades about Mueller’s “witch hunt” for domestic political consumption, the president’s reliance on the special counsel’s indictment would project an administration in lockstep against Russia’s provocations.
Yet, whatever prep work went into this issue, President Trump was unprepared for Putin’s crafty response: The offer that was indeed “incredible” in the literal sense of that word . . . which, alas, was not the sense in which the president used it.
Trump crowed that Putin had “offered to have the people working on the case come and work with [Russia’s] investigators, with respect to the 12 people” (i.e., the dozen indicted officers in Russia’s military-intelligence service).
I bet he did.
Of all the president’s mind-boggling utterances at the press conference, I found this the most stunning.
Some would counter that the low point was the president’s placing equal blame on the United States for the problematic state of Russian–American relations, but I’m beyond being stunned by that. One hoped that Trump’s election would end Obama’s hallmark depictions of moral equivalence between America and thug countries. Yet here’s how the president, at the start of his term, defended Putin when Bill O’Reilly called him a “killer”: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Other critics of Trump’s summit performance would point to his refusal to side with his own intelligence appointees, rather than Putin, on the matter of Russia’s cyberespionage; or to Trump’s choice of Helsinki as the right time and place for a rant against Mueller, Hillary Clinton, and the DNC — while standing beside an American foe whose chief objective is to sow destabilizing strife in our body politic. Sadly, though, who hasn’t heard all of this before, and when has this president ever been restrained by a presidential norm?
No, the most alarming part of the presser was the palpable satisfaction the president took in describing Putin’s “incredible” proposal. Trump is desperate to show that his entreaties to the Russian despot — amid the “collusion” controversy and against the better judgment of his skeptical advisers and supporters — could bear real fruit. It made him ripe to get rolled.
The proposal to invite Mueller to Moscow brought to mind others who’ve tried to investigate Putin’s regime on Russian soil. There is, of course, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed the regime’s $230 million fraud only to be clubbed to death with rubber batons in a Russian prison — Putin said he must have had a heart attack. Then there is Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer for the Magnitsky family who has been investigating regime involvement in the fraud. He was slated to testify in a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Prevezon, a company controlled by Putin cronies that is implicated in the fraud. But then, somehow, Gorokhov “accidentally” fell from the fourth-floor balcony of a Moscow apartment building. (Miraculously, he survived, but the case — which I wrote about here — settled without any admission of wrongdoing by Prevezon.)
Can’t you just hear the Mueller Team firing up “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in anticipation of their big road trip?
Didn’t think so.
Truth be told, the prospect of hosting Mueller’s investigators in his accident-prone country interests Putin less than the “reciprocity” he has in mind.
As a “condition” of so generously helping Mueller, Putin expects that our government would “reciprocate” by making available for questioning by Russian investigators “officers of law enforcement and intelligence services of the United States, whom we believe have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.”
This is classic Putin. The former KGB agent takes every Western misstep as a precedent, to be contorted and pushed to maximum advantage. As we’ve observed over the years, for example, the Kremlin has rationalized its territorial aggression against former Soviet satellites by relying on U.S. spearheading — over Russian objections — of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. While positing lip-service denials that he meddled in our 2016 election, Putin implies that we had it coming after what he claims was Obama-administration interference in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections — to say nothing of the extensive American history of intelligence operations to influence foreign elections. (See Scott Shane’s comprehensive New York Times report.) As I pointed out when Mueller’s indictment was filed, if our government does not see how Russia (like other rogue nations) is certain to exploit the precedent the Justice Department has set by indicting foreign officials for actions taken on their government’s behalf, we are in for a rude awakening — particularly given that ours is the most active government in the world.
If you think the word ‘collusion’ makes Trump crazy, try uttering the word ‘Browder’ around Putin.
Naturally, Putin expects us to help him investigate Bill Browder. If you think the word “collusion” makes Trump crazy, try uttering the word “Browder” around Putin. Browder (who is British, though American born and educated) was the force behind both Magnitsky’s investigation and the sanctions legislation enacted in the U.S. and elsewhere in retaliation for Magnitsky’s murder — legislation that has cost Putin’s cronies lots of money, and the regime lots of embarrassment.
In Helsinki, the Russian dictator repeated his standing allegation that Browder and his associates have evaded taxes on over a billion dollars in Russian income. He further claimed that “they sent a huge amount — $400 million — as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” While this is outlandish, it reminds us of the purported dirt on Mrs. Clinton that Putin’s operatives sought to peddle to the Trump campaign in June 2016. This was the infamous Trump Tower meeting, where Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya reportedly told Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort that Browder was involved in a tax-evasion scheme that implicated Clinton donors. This, she urged, was information that could be used to damage the Clinton campaign. Ms. Veselnitskaya also rehearsed the Kremlin’s rant against the Magnitsky legislation.
The information appears to have been useless, but the incident should have taught the president and his underlings that there is risk in merely taking a meeting with Putin’s emissaries, let alone with Putin himself. To date, at least as far as what is publicly known, the Trump Tower meeting remains the closest brush that Trump has had with “collusion” — the narrative (indeed, the investigation) that has dogged his presidency. It is astonishing that the president would allow Putin to manipulate him into reviving that storyline.
Putin was not done. Two days after Helsinki, the Russian prosecutor general issued a list of Americans the Kremlin wants interrogated for “illegal activities.” The list includes Michael McFaul, the Obama administration’s ambassador to Russia, and at least one former intelligence official. Memo to DOJ: Expect Russia to issue indictments and international arrest warrants soon — as Putin said, it’s all about “reciprocity.”
Yes, it is outrageous for Russia to demand investigative access to our diplomats and officials. But what did we expect was going to happen? After the president seemed to gush at Putin’s “incredible offer” that we assist each other’s investigations, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was in no position to dismiss Russia’s proposal out of hand. Only when senior administration officials and Congress erupted in protest (with the Republican-controlled Senate quickly passing a 98–0 resolution in opposition) did the White House beat its retreat. First, though, the president made sure to invite Putin to come to Washington for another meeting in the fall. What could go wrong?
Yes, it is outrageous for Russia to demand investigative access to our diplomats and officials. But what did we expect was going to happen?
To say that President Trump has made a hash of this is undeniable. To pretend that he is alone in this is the worst kind of revisionist history.
The “incredible offer” that Putin hit Trump with — and that Trump was palpably thrown by — was not woven out of whole cloth. Did you know that the United States and the Russian Federation have a bilateral mutual-legal-assistance treaty? Yeah, it was negotiated by the Clinton administration and ratified by the Bush administration. The MLAT calls for us to cooperate when the Putin regime seeks to obtain testimony, interview subjects of investigations, locate and identify suspects, transfer persons held in custody, freeze assets — you name it.
It’s part of our government’s commitment to the notion that the law-enforcement processes of a constitutional, representative republic dedicated to the rule of law can seamlessly mesh with those of a gangster dictatorship whose idea of due process is deciding which nerve agent — polonium or novichok — is the punishment that fits the “crime.” What . . . you thought there could be nothing nuttier than promoting “sharia democracy”?
As you’d imagine, the MLAT has a number of loopholes that enable us to avoid complicity in the Kremlin’s atrocious “investigations.” But it remains on the books. It enables Putin to pose as the leader of a normal, law-abiding regime that just wants to help Bob Mueller out and maybe ask Bill Browder a couple of questions — preferably out on the balcony.
Clinton joined with Russia in an agreement to . . . wait for it . . . protect Ukraine. Bush looked Putin in the eye, got a “sense of his soul,” and found him “straightforward and trustworthy” — so much so that his State Department regarded Russia as a “strategic partner” that was going to help us with Iran (by helping it develop nuclear power!) . . . while Russia annexed parts of Georgia. Then came Obama’s “Russia Reset” — more “partnering” on Iran, ushering Moscow into the World Trade Organization, signing off on the Uranium One deal (and let’s not forget that cool $500,000 Russian payday for Bill Clinton and all those millions flowing into the Clinton Foundation) . . . while Russia backed Assad and the Iranian mullahs, annexed Crimea, stoked civil war in eastern Ukraine, and conducted cyber attacks on our election system.
You think the president of the United States ill-served our nation this week in a delusional quest for bromance with Vladimir Putin? You’ll get no argument from me, but there’s been a lot of that going around.