US President Donald Trump on Tuesday faced a barrage of criticism from his opponents and even from his own party for not backing the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections won by him.
Sharply reacting to Trump’s joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki after their first formal summit meeting, his critics said the president refused to stand up for the country he was elected to represent and protect.
When asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or President Putin when it came to allegations of meddling in the election, Trump said, “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Trump met with Putin one-on-one for more than two hours and in a session with aides present.
In his comments, Trump downplayed the assessment of the US intelligence community that Moscow mounted an effort to help him win the presidency in 2016, blasted the American news media, bashed the FBI and the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.
Trump’s own intelligence chief publicly broke with him.
Russia is responsible for “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to undermine US democracy, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a statement.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said.
The press conference in Helsinki was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” said Republican Senator John McCain, who chairs the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
“But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake,” he said.
“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,” McCain said.
The top Republican in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan, said Trump must see that “Russia is not our ally”.
But Trump remained unfazed and has defended his controversial comments.
“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people’. However, I also recognise that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past, as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!” Trump said in a tweet aboard Air Force One on his way back home.
“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics,” he said, adding that a “productive dialogue is not only good for the US and Russia, but is also good for the world”.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and one of the president’s closest supporters too criticised him, saying it was the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected - immediately.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors’. It was nothing short of treasonous, tweeted John Brennan, the former CIA director.
“Today, in a disgusting, disturbing and deeply dangerous appearance seen around the world, Donald Trump sided with an authoritarian leader of another country over our own intelligence agencies,” said Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.
“What we saw today was the President of the United States belittling our country’s own men and women in the intelligence community, refusing to acknowledge or hold accountable Putin for Russian hacking in our elections, and standing in the most servile way next to Putin, advancing Russia’s interests in spite of what that means for America,” she said.
Indian-American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi said Trump failed to confront Putin on Russian interference in US elections and placed more trust in the Russian dictator’s denials than in the assessments of US intelligence.
“President Trump did not carry out his responsibility as a global leader, and he should have done much more than simply asking the question of whether interference occurred. President Trump’s failure to stand up to the Kremlin has given it carte blanche to interfere in our upcoming elections, and that should frighten us all,” he said.
The mainstream US media also expressed outrage.
“Why Won’t Donald Trump Speak for America? The president lays himself at Vladimir Putin’s feet,” The New York Times said in an editorial.
“Trump just colluded with Russia. Openly,” wrote the Washington Post’s editorial board. “Mr Trump appeared to align himself with the Kremlin against American law enforcement before the Russian ruler and a global audience,” the daily said.
“The world hasn’t seen a US president like this in modern times, and as ever in Trump World everyone else will have to adapt. Let’s navigate between the critics who predict the end of the world order and the cheerleaders who see only genius and try to offer a realistic assessment of the fallout from a troubling week,” The Wall Street Journal said in its editorial.