Why you should care
Because with Trump, what you see is what you get.
In January 2016, Donald Trump declared: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” On Monday in Helsinki, he held the smoking gun: a soccer ball passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The ball is in your court now,” Putin said, in a mixed metaphor via a translator, noting that the U.S. will host the World Cup in 2026, after Russia’s turn as host wrapped on Sunday. Trump practically beamed, said the ball would be a great gift for his son Barron and tossed it down to his wife, Melania, in the front row.
The bizarre chumminess between the two men, and Trump’s public acceptance of Putin’s denials over his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions on election meddling, left even the president’s defenders aghast. Newt Gingrich called it “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” Neil Cavuto on Fox Business Network called it “disgusting.”
When searching the annals of the 18-month-old administration for comparable moments that strain Trump’s presidency to its breaking point, his response to the deadly white supremacist clashes in Charlottesville comes to mind, when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.” Yet at least there was a domestic political calculation there: White supremacists are Trump voters. Stroking Putin does not stoke his base, even though Trump’s warmth toward the strongman has itself moved the needle. According to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans who believe Russia is friendly or an ally jumped from 22 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2018. Regardless of Putin’s popularity, it’s hard to imagine any domestic political cost for Trump. In the face of so much turmoil, Trump’s popularity has been remarkably stable — hovering between 35 percent and 45 percent for his entire presidency, per Gallup.
To explain Trump’s obsequious performance and the mere fact of the unexplained meeting in the first place, Democrats have gone full pee tape. Asked whether he has compromising information on Trump, Putin chuckled and cast the idea aside but did not directly say no. Trump added, “It would have been out long ago,” as an odd way to exonerate himself. Does it even matter at this point? Putin got what he has now admitted he wanted: Trump in the White House. He also, according to those who know him best, wants to destabilize the Western world. Letting the idea hang in the air that he’s the kompromat-carrying puppet master serves Putin’s ends too.
The summit came at the close of a Euro trip in which Trump did his best to trample on key European alliances while cozying with strongmen. This reportedly included a fist bump to the power-consolidating Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey backstage in Brussels, with Trump proclaiming Erdogan “does things the right way.”
Trump’s meeting one-on-one with Putin (plus translators) sparked another barrage of speculation. Were they discussing terms for a tape of Trump doing unseemly things with sex workers? Colluding on the next election hack? Doubtful.
More likely, Trump sounded a lot like he did in that press conference. Bombshell revelations about how Trump acts in private — from “shithole countries” to “grab ’em by the pussy” — tend to be more crass versions of what we get on Twitter and TV on a daily basis. He likely spent a decent portion of his two hours with Vlad going on about ex-FBI agent Peter Strzok or the missing Hillary Clinton emails or the witch hunt. Any allusion to Russian election interference sends Trump down a defensive rabbit hole about his amazing victory and his enemies — whom Trump now names as the FBI, the news media and Europe, rather than the smirking former intelligence officer who handed him a soccer ball.