Whether Donald Trump is president for four years or eight, whatever history’s ultimate judgment of him is, and however he tries to explain it away, his remarks in Helsinki absolving Vladimir Putin of interference in the 2016 election will stand as the most surreal moment in 70 years of Russian-American relations, an ineradicable blot on the ledger of his presidency and maybe—just maybe—the most bizarre and troubling utterance by any chief executive in American history.
It is almost beside the point if Trump’s defense of Putin will have a lasting impact on his political fortunes—any more than the Access Hollywood tape, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his equivalence of white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville, or his forced separation of parents and children at the Mexico border seriously damaged his standing with the voters and Republican officials whose loyalty seems unswerving.
Each of those events was greeted to one degree or another as the end of the road, only to wind up as speed bumps. Trump’s comments on Russia are qualitatively and quantitatively different, and in the white-hot speed of the digital age are already guaranteed a permanent place in the history books. No less a self-styled student of the past than Newt Gingrich pronounced Trump’s performance the gravest mistake of his presidency. Former CIA Director John Brennan was moved to describe it as “nothing short of treasonous,” surely among the most inflammatory charges ever lodged against a sitting president by a former top government official since the age of dueling died out.
Perhaps not since June 11, 1948, when Harry Truman, campaigning at a whistle stop in Eugene, Oregon, described the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin as “a prisoner of the politburo” has a president said anything so astonishing about the leader of a country that has been, in one wary way or another, an adversary of the United States since the end of World War II. That “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of Russian hacking (as Trump admiringly put it) is irrelevant. Trump’s own intelligence officials told him, before he even took office, that the evidence was crystal clear, according to The New York Times.
“Apart from the fact that Trump is a transparent narcissist, he is woefully inexperienced and [that] speaks volumes about having someone with no elective experience as president,” says the historian Robert Dallek. “Three things may be at work in his dealings with Putin: He can’t admit Russian help for fear it will call into question the legitimacy of his election; or it is the result of whatever Putin has on him; or it speaks to his financial connections to the Russians. Whatever the truth, Trump simply comes across as someone who never should have won the presidency. His Helsinki performance will cast a long shadow.”
Indeed, Trump’s comments this week—and his unpersuasive efforts to walk them back as a matter of would versus wouldn’t—make past presidential blunders in Russian relations look like child’s play by comparison.
In fact, Trump’s remarks were not so much a blunder at all as they were a candid, unscripted statement of his most deeply held views. Contrast them with Truman’s unfathomable description of his dealings with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II. “I got very well acquainted with Joe Stalin and I like Old Joe,” Truman told his astounded campaign audience in 1948, in the middle of the Berlin Blockade, in which the Soviets were blocking the Allies’ land access to West Berlin in the Cold War. “He is a decent fellow. But Joe is a prisoner of the politburo. He can’t do what he wants to. He makes agreements and, if he could, he would keep them. But the people who run the government are very specific in saying that he can’t keep them.”
Truman’s impromptu statement was a flat contradiction of American policy, and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett had made a frantic plea to the speechwriter Clark Clifford, aboard the presidential train, to have Truman cut it out. In later years, senior Truman aides remained unsure just what had moved the president to offer such an analysis, apart from the fact that Stalin may have been courteous to him at his first international conference after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Much less well remembered is what Truman said next, concluding his remarks with an anodyne expression of hope: “Now sometime or other, that great country and this great country are going to understand that their mutual interests mean the welfare and peace of the world as a whole.”
Almost 30 years later, in a 1976 campaign debate on foreign policy with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford made what was, until Trump’s declarations this week, the other strangest statement by an American president regarding Russia—and one with a Helsinki connection, as it happens. It came in response to a question from Max Frankel of The New York Times about whether the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights and economic cooperation had benefited the U.S.S.R more than the United States. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” the president insisted, “and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Frankel told me by email this week that he had been trained by the Times’ James Reston “never to play ‘gotcha’ with a president at news conferences; if an answer was unclear or ambiguous we should follow up and say, ‘Did you mean to say?’ or ‘Did we understand you correctly?’—the theory being that we were after true info, not scoring debate points.” He did just that, asking, “Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and in—and making sure with their troops that it’s a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?”
But Ford just dug himself even deeper. “I don’t believe, uh, Mr. Frankel, that uh—the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union,’’ Ford said. “I don’t believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: It has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”
What Ford was trying to say, of course, was that the spirit of those nations had not been crushed by the Soviets—a point that the rise of Solidarity in Poland would prove just a few years later—but the damage was done and Carter pounced. “I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish Americans and the Czech Americans and the Hungarian Americans in this country that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain,” he said.
Ford’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, immediately recognized the problem, and the veteran Republican strategist Stuart Spencer, who was advising Ford’s campaign that year, told me years ago that Dick Cheney, then Ford’s chief of staff, was almost “spastic” with anxiety to have Ford fix the gaffe. But Frankel recalls that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had called Ford to praise his performance and the president was reluctant to concede error.
“I know what you’re going to say and the answer is ‘no!’” Ford told his aide Robert Hartmann, who recalled in his memoirs how he appealed to the president the next day on Air Force One. “I may not know much about campaigning, but I know this much: It’s fatal for a candidate to start explaining himself.”
Finally, two days later, and only after Cheney showed the president a transcript of the exchange, did “he grudgingly [give] up—but he was sore about having to do so,” National Journal’s Tom DeFrank recalled in an email this week. Ford’s boo-boo has often been cited as one of the probable factors in his loss to Carter the following month, but my colleague David Graham has demonstrated that polls show its effect was probably minimal.
Trump’s mea culpa has been just as grudging as Ford’s, and he muddied the waters still further on Wednesday when he appeared to answer “no” when asked if he believed that the Russians were still attempting to interfere with American elections. But this is far from the first time that Trump has made inexplicable comments about Putin, and he has shown himself capable of waving them airily away.
In a 2016 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Trump insisted of Putin, “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” When Stephanopoulos pointed out that Putin had already annexed Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine, Trump just moved on. “You know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”