The predominant media narrative of President Trump’s trip to Helsinki and its aftermath last week was one of disaster. In case you missed it, last Monday, Trump stood next to Vladimir Putin and held up the Russian president’s “very strong” denials of involvement in America’s last presidential election as a counterweight to the forceful conclusions of the American intelligence community. The ensuing days brought implausible attempts to overwrite Monday’s statements, more damaging revelations about Russian election interference, and clear public misalignments between Trump and his own administration. But depending on which media outlets you were paying most attention to, you might have gotten a very different picture of last week’s events. In this issue, we take a look at how the story of the Helsinki summit and its aftermath played out from a few different vantage points.
The View From America’s Ideological Corners
By Matt Thompson, Atlantic executive editor
In corners of the U.S. media, a few points of emphasis diverged from the consensus narrative about the week. Here are some alternative perspectives you might have encountered:
When it comes to Russia, Trump may speak softly, but his administration carries a big stick. “There's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been,” Trump said on Wednesday. Some media outlets reinforced this point. “Thus far, the policies coming out of the Trump administration have been the toughest on Russia since the Reagan administration,” wrote James Carafano in The National Interest. “And it is the actual policy—not the random tweets and off-hand comments—that matter.” NPR’s White House correspondent Scott Horsley reviewed the evidence for this argument and found some factual support for it, noting heightened military spending and a boost in sanctions against Russian officials and oligarchs.
The U.S. has interfered in other countries’ elections, including Russia’s. The journalist Glenn Greenwald argued this point at length in a debate on the liberal talk show Democracy Now. Greenwald said the nature and extent of Russian influence on the U.S. election were less aggressive than the influence the U.S. itself has exerted in other elections. In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart echoed a similar point, writing that Americans need to come to terms with the election interference the U.S. government has done in their name.
Russian involvement is actually good. In the softest incarnation of a pro-Russia argument, some contend that more diplomatic engagement with Russia is a good thing, even if it means downplaying the role the country played in disrupting the U.S. election. Out on a farther fringe, McKay Coppins reported for The Atlantic, some Trump supporters in the U.S. are even celebrating Russia’s actions.
These lines of analysis reflect the increasingly divergent strains of view within U.S. media. It’s “one of the defining features of American life,” wrote Atlantic staff writer Emma Green, describing the findings of a survey conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic. “Different political camps each have their own stories about the country’s problems.” And when the lens is broadened beyond America, we find an even more cacophonous set of perspectives, as the following dispatches demonstrate.
The View From Europe
By Yasmeen Serhan, Atlantic assistant global editor
Following Trump’s confrontational meetings with NATO members in Brussels and British Prime Minister Theresa May in the United Kingdom, European leaders feared the American president’s trademark unpredictability could come to haunt them in the Finnish capital. How much, some wondered, would Trump be willing to give in order to get the optics of a successful meeting? What if he ends up giving Moscow more concessions than he gets in return? Europeans worried in particular that Trump might agree to halt certain U.S.-led NATO military exercises or ease sanctions to appease Russia.
Many of these concerns ultimately didn’t come to pass. But the extraordinary press conference between the two leaders left many European leaders shell-shocked.
Their reaction was perhaps best captured by the front pages of European newspapers the day after the summit concluded. In the U.K., The Guardian newspaper splashed its front page with a quote from former CIA Director John Brennan, who described Trump’s performance at the press conference as “nothing short of treasonous.” The British tabloid Daily Mirror took the criticism one step further, dubbing the American president, “Putin’s Poodle.”
The reaction was similar across the rest of the continent. In the summit’s host country of Finland, Kauppalehti newspaper declared the score of the summit, “Trump 0 - Putin 1.” Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper labeled the meeting a “Summit of autocrats,” while Die Welt newspaper concluded that Trump “makes it easy for Putin.” The French newspaper Le Monde called Donald Trump, “Putin’s best ally.” Portugal’s Público declared that “Putin gave Trump what he wanted and Trump gave him much more in return.”
Perhaps the only optimistic European headlines came from Estonia, where its three main daily newspapers reached the same conclusion: It could have been worse.
The View From Russia
By Mikhail Klimentov, editorial associate at Atlantic57
Over the past week, Russia’s state and state-aligned media have managed to balance two seemingly contradictory narratives. On one hand, the summit in Helsinki was a world-historic event, a harbinger of positive future developments. On the other, Donald Trump’s opponents in the Western media were in meltdown over an inconsequential meeting that was functionally policy-free and without concrete next steps.
One broadcast pushed both of these narratives. The political talk show 60 Minutes, on the state-owned network Russia-1, went live for the duration of the summit. Panelists praised Trump for engaging Russia in diplomatic dialogue, and argued that Putin had reaffirmed Russia’s status as a global power.
“Will today’s meeting enter the history books?” asked Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the lower house of Russia’s national legislature. “It will. The spirit of Helsinki is historic, and we are all witnesses to a historic moment.”
But the network’s coverage of the summit was also laced with mockery of the Western media, assuming that those outlets would be reflexively hostile toward Russia. In that same broadcast, Nikonov mused that the frustrated reaction of America’s “liberal” and “russophobic” press was a good indicator that the summit had been a success. (Like some in the American media, Russians have adopted “owning the libs” as a barometer of success.) Throughout the rest of the broadcast, the hosts joked about which statement by Putin would make the front page of the New York Times the following morning.
These two narratives serve two distinct goals that both support Putin’s interests. The former heralds the return of Russia to good diplomatic standing on the global stage. The latter provides a convenient enemy—a key element in state propaganda—and a potential scapegoat should future talks fall through. What became obvious in the naked pursuit of these goals was the ease with which talking points could be twisted, reshaped, and repurposed to serve the narratives.
On the ironically titled program “Facts,” for example, the anchor emphasized that the summit had resulted in no signed documents or joint declarations, and dove into a smarmy reading of alarmed Washington Post and New Yorker headlines. The subtext being: Without a major policy declaration, there was no cause for alarm. However, on other shows, pundits described the lack of policy as a positive for Russia—the value of the summit was in helping Trump and Putin clear the air in a private context.
Ultimately, a viewer might be left with the impression that Russia had achieved a significant diplomatic coup—and also, that Trump’s critics were obsessing over an insignificant political chat. The obvious tension here is never addressed, let alone resolved.
The View Beyond Helsinki
By Karen Yuan
The world kept turning even after the two presidents met. Here are a few news stories you might have missed in the avalanche of takes.
Israel passed its “nation-state bill,” declaring itself the homeland of the Jewish people. The law is controversial in a state that has never clarified the rights of its non-Jewish minorities. “Israel’s new law is a consequential signal of Israel’s values,” wrote Emma Green in The Atlantic, “especially when it comes to Arab-Israeli minority rights.”
Over 100 past Ohio State students accused a former team doctor of sexual misconduct. After a few former student wrestlers alleged earlier this year that the late Richard Strauss sexually abused or harassed them in the 1980s and 1990s, OSU conducted an independent investigation. Interviews turned up many new allegations.
Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. Mike Cernovich and other conservative writers surfaced decade-old tweets from Gunn that joked crudely about pedophilia and rape, prompting the decision.
The EPA proposed a rule that would prohibit itself from consulting much scientific research when regulating pollution. The policy would require any consulted studies to publish underlying data, which exempts most large-scale medical studies, since medical researchers can’t publicize supporting material without encroaching on medical-privacy laws.
Mark Zuckerberg hedged on the intentions of Holocaust deniers on Facebook. In an interview on censoring misinformation, he argued against taking down content that denied the Holocaust from the platform because “it’s hard to impugn intent.”
Today’s Wrap Up
Today’s Question: What have you read about the Trump-Putin meeting that stayed with you? We’re discussing this issue on the forums.
What’s Coming: On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that prohibited contraception for Catholics, Caroline Kitchener writes about the group of priests who came out against the encyclical immediately after its release.
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