For Donald Trump, there’s no such thing as bad optics. Or, maybe there is and he just doesn’t care.
One would think that with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion in Russia’s attacks on the 2016 elections heating up, and with the indictments of two Trump campaign aides last week, the president would be extremely cautious this weekend at a regional economic summit in Vietnam attended by Vladimir Putin.
But this is Donald Trump, and caution doesn’t seem to be a concept at all embraced by him or his administration.
On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said no formal meeting would take place between Putin and Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. But by Saturday, it was clear that this message wasn’t entirely accurate. In fact, the two leaders were seen chatting and posing for photo ops several times throughout the past two days.
According to CNN, Trump and Putin spoke “casually” at least three times on Friday and Saturday in Da Nang. Then, on Saturday, both leaders issued a joint statement regarding their “determination to defeat ISIS in Syria.” But while the Kremlin sought to promote the news of this joint agreement, the White House largely downplayed the significance of the talks behind it. And none of the journalists traveling with Trump were granted access to any of the summit events the U.S. president participated in, the New York Daily News reported.
Trump then resorted to his default “praise Putin mode,” portraying the Russian leader as a victim of persecution by the real nemesis, the Democratic Party. On Saturday, Trump assured the world that he had spoken to Putin about whether he and Russian intelligence had waged a sophisticated cyberattack on U.S. elections. Rest assured, Putin insists he hasn’t done anything wrong, Trump said.
“He says he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on the trip to Hanoi, Vietnam. “Every time he sees me, he said: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that he means it.”
“Having a good relationship with Russia’s a great, great thing. And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way,” Trump told reporters, once again casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia did try to interfere in the election. “People will die because of it.”
Two very different versions of these exchanges were shared with the public, depending on whether you live in Russia or the United States. A spokesman for Putin said the subject of election attacks did not come up in these “informal” discussions between the two, while Trump himself told reporters it did.
Trump also attacked former FBI Director James Comey, calling him a “liar,” CNN reported. “So you look at it, I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he is proven now to be a leaker. So you look at that and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with them,” Trump said, referring to Comey, former national intelligence director James Clapper, and former CIA chief John Brennan.
This means that the president of the United States is siding with Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence community. Again. Faced with this astounding lack of transparency, on both sides, it’s probably best to leave it to Mueller to sort out the truth at this point.