The last two weeks are hard to believe. It seems that each day brings new surprises, each proving to be worse than before. Special prosecutor Mueller indicts nine Russians for hacking into U.S. computer systems with the intention of affecting the presidential election. Since they live and work in Russia, there is no possibility they will be extradited to the U.S.
Monday, July 16th, Trump and Vladimir Putin met privately for several hours in Helsinki, Finland, discussing the relations between the U.S. and Russia. Afterwards, both of them held a news conference. Trump’s remarks provoked a firestorm back in the U.S. There have been calls for his impeachment from both Democrats and Republicans. Senator John McCain tweeted “Today’s press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” In a full statement, he wrote “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.”
I went over a transcript of the news conference several times and it was what I expected. Putin delivered a level-headed speech that was appropriate for the occasion. Trump started better than I expected. It seemed to me that the speech had been written by someone else, perhaps someone in the Whitehouse.
But midway through his remarks he switched gear and began pandering to his ”base,“ accusing ”partisan critics, or the media, or Democrats“ of wanting to do nothing but ”resist and obstruct.“ Later, in the question and answer period, he returned to his normal amalgam of subjects, insisting that he easily beat Hillary Clinton in the general election and that there was no collusion with Russia during the election:
There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign and every time you hear all of these you know 12 and 14 - stuff that has nothing to do and frankly they admit - these are not people involved in the campaign.
But to the average reader out there, they’re saying well maybe that does. It doesn’t. And even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories or in one case the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.
This was vintage Trump. It was surprising that Putin defended Trump when it was his turn to speak:
As to who is to be believed and to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one – if you take this — where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?
He defends the interests of the United States of America. And I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have interests that are common.
We are looking for points of contact. There are issues where our postures diverge and we are looking for ways to reconcile our differences, how to make our effort more meaningful.
We should not proceed from the immediate political interests that guide certain political powers in our countries.
We should be guided by facts. Could you name a single fact that would definitively prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense.
Just like the president recently mentioned. Yes, the public at large in the United States had a certain perceived opinion of the candidates during the campaign. But there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it. That’s a usual thing.
President Trump, when he was a candidate, he mentioned the need to restore the Russia U.S. relationship and it’s clear that a certain part of American society felt sympathetic about it and different people could express their sympathy in different ways.
But isn’t that natural? Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us? We heard the accusations about the Concorde company. Well, as far as I know, this company hired American lawyers and the accusations doesn’t have a fighting chance in the American courts.
So there’s no evidence when it comes to the actual facts. So we have to be guided by facts, not by rumors.
Putin also did his own version of Clinton-bashing:
For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over one and a half billion dollars in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States and yet the money escaped the country, they were transferred to the United States.
They sent a huge amount of money - 400 million - as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, Trump did bash the intelligence community:
So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the democratic national committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others and 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. But I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails. So 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. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.
When computer security experts investigate an attack on a computer they frequently shut it down and make a clone of the hard disk and RAM. That way, they avoid having to transport the computers to a lab. A clone of the hard disk is, for all purposes, just as good as the original. So we can chalk Trump’s remarks on servers to either ignorance or pandering to his ”base.“
On the other hand, taking the word of any head of state over the advice of one’s own intelligence agents is foolhardy. This is especially true if one announces it in public, because it will make one’s own spooks into enemies. It is common knowledge among security people that no matter how close our allies may be, their officials cannot be completely trusted. Their loyalty is to their own nation and its government, not ours, and conversely.
Trump’s relationship with Putin is hard to explain in the absence of other reasons beyond his desire to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. His businesses are known to be entangled with the Russion oligarchy, and they have loaned him large sums of money to keep his enterprises going. There is also good reason to suspect that Trump has been laundering oligarchy money through real estate deals.
Trump gets away with these criminal misdeeds in part because he has mastered the art of distraction. Every time damaging information emerges that horrifies knowledgeable persons, he quickly pulls a stunt even more outrageous than the last that draws everyone’s attention away from inconvenient information. His histrionics hide the damage he and his wrecking crews have been doing since he assumed office. His destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and his war on global warming science endangers the existence of human civilization and perhaps the human species.
He is aware of the danger to climate of human activity, but is actively promoting the very activities that are contributing to the warming. Noam Chomsky recently pointed out that Trump has applied to the Irish government for permission to build a wall around his golf course to protect it from the rise in sea level. It would be hard to find a better example of lethal irresponsibility.