BERLIN – Given the weeks of apocalyptic speculation that preceded the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the news conference that followed the meeting Monday should have been anticlimactic: Nothing was agreed, nothing gained or conceded. And yet John Brennan, who ran the Central Intelligence Agency during the Obama administration, tweeted that Trump’s performance was “nothing short of treasonous.”
But Trump didn’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, announce a troop pullout from Syria, promise to disband NATO, withdraw U.S. troops from Germany or stop the deployment of U.S. anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe. He didn’t give up his opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany or express regret about his decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.
In fact, he did nothing that could be construed as undermining U.S. interests as traditionally understood. His comments revealed no freebies to Putin or even any sign that the two leaders had attempted to negotiate compromises on the many substantive issues that divide their two countries.
So where’s the treason? Judging by reactions in the U.S. and the questions at the press conference, the crux of the issue is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation asserting that Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Trump clearly failed to press Putin on the allegations, even though the Justice Department announced last week that Mueller had indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Putin and Trump appeared to work together to parry questions.
Should we have expected anything different? Trump has said many times he considers the investigation a witch hunt and an attempt to undermine his victory, which he revisited at length at the news conference Monday. He seems eager for any reassurance, including from Putin, that he won without any outside help.
Putin, for his part, has denied any Russian government interference and will continue to do so even if the proof becomes overwhelming. That’s business as usual for Russian spies, and that’s exactly how he has behaved in the case of Malaysia Airline Flight 17, which was downed by a Russian-made missile over eastern Ukraine four years ago. The positions of Trump nor Putin were complementary and neither leader had any reason to change.
The Russian president did say something new at the press conference: For the first time, he said he’d wanted Trump to win the election. Trump, according to Putin, was his preferred candidate because he talked about normalizing the U.S.-Russia relationship. Even Putin tells the truth sometimes — especially when it’s something people want to hear. Trump clearly believes Putin likes him and wishes him no ill. That’s not hard to do: All it takes is flattering Trump and praising his election victory. I doubt, however, that Putin expects the U.S. president to start treating Russia as an ally. Being nice to Trump has only one pay-off: Watching him glow in response. It doesn’t mean Trump will do anything for you.
The U.S. president will continue acting in ways that aren’t in Putin’s interests. He will keep trying to bludgeon and blackmail Europe into buying more expensive U.S. liquefied natural gas rather than cheaper fuel from the Russian pipeline. He will keep pushing sanctions on Iran, an important military ally of Putin’s in Syria, and Russian companies trading with Iran will get no reprieve from these sanctions. He will keep backing Ukraine against Russia, and not just because Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flatters him, too: He is hemmed in from doing anything else by Congress and by pressure from his own party. He will not drop any Russia sanctions for the same reason.
In other words, he will continue the tough Russia policies that Republican and Democratic administrations pursued before him, and then some: President Barack Obama, for example, was softer on the Iran issue.
Trump’s relationship with Putin increasingly looks like a love affair that won’t be consummated. Each would like to do something for the other. But Putin has nothing to offer that the U.S. media and the Republican establishment might support, and Trump is mindful of where he stands with both and is blocked by the U.S. Constitution from giving anything away.
By this point, Putin is probably sorry that he let his intelligence services and friendly troll factory owners stir up trouble in the U.S. in 2016. It looked like fun and created a beautiful mess, destabilizing Russia’s biggest geopolitical rival for years to come. He would have done better to stand aside and watch Trump win the election anyway. The confusion still would have been there, but bargains, grand and small, probably would have been within reach.
Now, Putin and Trump can only stare at each other like star-crossed lovers and play press conference tag. It’s not treasonous, just sad.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.