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President Trump and Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin’s news conference in Helsinki on Monday was the lowest point in the history of the American presidency. Standing next to a dictatorial leader accused by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement of attacking the foundations of American democracy, Trump often appeared confused and incoherent — and those were his best moments at the podium. The rest of the time he spent praising the KGB dictator to his left and attacking the institutions he swore an oath to defend. It was a Russia First performance, from beginning to end.
Even for those of us who had very low expectations, and who considered the mere existence of this summit to be a catastrophe, the reality of it was much worse. Trump did such a thorough job of presenting the Kremlin line that Putin barely had to exert himself to respond with his habitual mix of denials and deflections. It was a brutal reality check for those still deluded enough to hope that Trump represents the national interests of the United States, or the interests of anyone other than himself and Putin.
For Putin, the summit was a great success before it even started. Without the recurrent legitimacy of the ballot box — I assume no one still believes that Russia’s elections are real — dictators crave ways to demonstrate their credibility and to pass off their own interests and power as those of the nation. The tried and true methods are war, hosting sporting spectacles and appearing with important foreign leaders, especially democratically elected ones. Putin has managed a hat trick with his invasion of Ukraine still ongoing, the World Cup that ended in Moscow on Sunday and an imposing performance in Helsinki next to a feeble and cowed American president.