On Tuesday, I noted that one of the key exchanges in the Trump–Putin press conference in Finland doesn’t appear in full in the White House transcript, or at all in the Kremlin’s English-language transcript of the event. The Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked, “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” But how exactly did Vladimir Putin respond to those pointed questions?
If you listen to the English translation that was broadcast during the press conference, the Russian leader said, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.” This rendering of Putin’s remarks leaves open the possibility that he’s stating “Yes, I did” in reference not just to wanting Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential race, but also to ordering Russian officials to help Trump win, even though Putin repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election and collusion with the Trump campaign throughout the rest of the news conference.
But I’ve heard from a number of Russian speakers who point out that Putin’s actual comments in Russian concerning who he wanted to win the election are much less ambiguous than the way they were translated. He seems to have not used the phrase Yes, I did once, let alone twice. Instead, in Russian, Putin roughly said, “Yes, I wanted him to win, because he talked about the normalization of Russian–American relations.” In other words, he was apparently answering the first part of Mason’s question but not the second about whether he directed help Trump’s way. It’s unclear if that’s because Putin didn’t hear the second half of the question, it wasn’t translated into Russian accurately, or he simply chose to ignore it.
The comments are still significant: Putin is publicly admitting, in the clearest form yet, that he wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton during the U.S. presidential campaign and that this preference stemmed from Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia. He is acknowledging a motive for meddling in the U.S. election even as he rejects allegations that he did so.
As a U.S. intelligence report released in 2017 concluded, “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” over the course of the campaign, aspiring to “help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him” while focusing its “influence campaign” on “undermining [Clinton’s] expected presidency” when “it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election.”
Putin’s remark also undermines an argument Trump has made in the past: that the Kremlin might have actually preferred Clinton because she wouldn’t have been as strong a president as he is. It undercuts, too, Trump’s claim at the press conference that he didn’t see “any reason why” the Russians would interfere in the election. (The U.S. president later claimed that he meant to use a double negative and say that he didn’t see why it wouldn’t be the Russians.)
Based on what Putin really said in Russian, however, Monday’s press conference in Finland was evidently not the moment when the Russian president, facing relentless questioning about his role in the 2016 U.S. election, stood before the world and declared: You got me.