Ever since President Trump began his current Asian trip, one question has hung over the APEC summit: would he or wouldn’t he? In this case that meant would Donald Trump be privately meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And if so, what would they talk about?
The waiting is over and the answer to the first question is yes. What did they talk about? Strangely, most of the details are coming from the Russian representatives with only a few comments from Trump himself. They talked about Syria and ISIS again, which is hardly surprising. But the only subject the media was interested in was whether or not the Russian election meddling would come up. And it did…. sort of. Maybe. (CNN)
President Donald Trump suggested on Saturday he’s done confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin over his country’s election meddling since it’s insulting to the Russian leader.
Trump said he took Putin at his word that Russia did not seek to interfere in the US presidential election last year, despite a finding from US intelligence agencies that it did. The fraught relations between the two leaders was underscored anew when Putin’s spokesman said election meddling did not come up when they spoke, even though Trump said it did…
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he flew from Da Nang to Hanoi in Vietnam. Trump spoke to Putin three times on the sidelines of summit here, where the Russia meddling issue arose.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
“I think he is very insulted by it,” Trump added.
So Putin is saying they didn’t talk about it. Trump was asked onboard the plane and his answer wasn’t exactly clear in terms of what meeting he was talking about. “He said he didn’t meddle… You can only ask so many times.” Does that mean that Putin said it again in Da Nang or was he referring to the many times he’s made these denials in the past? Trump has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of either the ability or an interest in mastering the sort of crisp answers to media gaggle questions which his predecessors relied on to avoid these sorts of questions.
But let’s say they did talk about it. Trump would clearly prefer that to be the answer since it’s the line he’s taken the entire time. But is Putin guilty even if the President, really believes he means it when he tells him that? You can quickly list the number of people ranging from law enforcement and the intelligence community all the way up to the Secretary of State who have said the Russians “did it.” But in order for the nation to have a productive conversation on this, it would be helpful if all the players defined precisely what it is.
The default word is “meddling.” The Russians were “meddling” in the election. And despite our long history of prosecuting people for “meddling” in various degrees (starting with Shaggy and Scooby), we’re still somewhat in the dark about it. Did the Russians alter the vote totals in the election? Pretty much everyone agrees that didn’t happen. Did they spread disinformation on social media and bogus news sites which were favorable to Trump or damaging to Clinton? There’s virtually no question about that one. They did. In between those two extremes is the question of whether or not the Russians hacked the DNC and released the information to Wikileaks. We have plenty of opinions about that one but if anyone has rock solid proof I’ve yet to see it.
But the real bottom line here for me is, regardless of the truth lurking under all of this mess, why would anyone believe a denial coming from Putin? More to the point, why would our own President believe him? Trump’s detractors love to talk about how none of what we’re seeing these days is “normal” for an American president, but Putin is so far off the end of the bell curve it’s not funny. Vladimir Putin doesn’t just make hyperbolic and occasionally offensive remarks on Twitter or sign executive orders which anger his political opponents. The guy invades other countries, steals so much cash from his own government that he’s widely believed to be a trillionaire and has almost beyond question had a lengthy list of his critics assassinated.
The point is, Putin is hardly a credible character in terms of unvarnished veracity. If the President wants to prove that the Russians weren’t involved in any “election meddling” (pick your own definition for that), he’d be better off trying to win in the court of public opinion back home than simply saying Putin’s avowals are, “good enough for me!”