At the conclusion of President Trump’s extraordinary joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, critical reaction flooded in from members of the media, political analysts and government officials, but none resonated more than that of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
“You have been watching one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader that I’ve ever seen,” Cooper said in reaction to Trump’s repeated deflections on the question of whether Putin’s government had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
On Friday, Trump’s Department of Justice announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for their roles in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computer server and passing damaging information to WikiLeaks so as to aid Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton.
In Helsinki, Trump insisted that he held “both countries responsible” for the poor relations between the countries, notwithstanding the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that the Kremlin interfered with the 2016 elections and has continued its attempts to subvert American democracy. Russia continues to be under sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union over its invasion and annexation of Crimea.
The lengths that Trump went to in defending Putin seemed to surprise just about everyone who watched the performance, including commentators on the president’s favorite network, Fox News.
“That was quite something,” Fox News host Bret Baier proclaimed at the conclusion of Monday’s press conference. “Almost surreal at points. … The way that [Trump] dealt with it, defending himself — really not going after President Putin — was pretty interesting to watch.”
Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney: “It was not a very forceful presentation from President Trump with Putin standing right next to him.”
Fox’s Neil Cavuto: “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt to maybe jet lag and time differences, but holy moly.” pic.twitter.com/UIQWme3BIk
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) July 16, 2018
The gravity of what had transpired in Helsinki was also not lost on ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, who framed the news conference as a watershed moment.
.@GStephanopoulos on Trump-Putin presser: “All of you who were watching today will be able to tell your friends, family, your children, your grandchildren you were watching a moment of history. It may not be for the right reasons.” https://t.co/pnM34fHNdQ pic.twitter.com/EXTnpTozcI
— ABC News (@ABC) July 16, 2018
Even Drudge Report could not help but conclude that Putin had gotten what he wanted from the meeting with Trump.
Drudge Right Now: “Putin Dominates In Hel” pic.twitter.com/NB7Ug1bz6m
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) July 16, 2018
Perhaps more important than the media verdict on the news conference was what members of Congress made of it, starting with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” Ryan said in a statement. “That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had voiced his reservations about the summit before it took place, pulled no punches about his assessment over what had transpired.
Today’s press conference in #Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) July 16, 2018
Frequent Trump critics in Congress were especially appalled by what they had witnessed.
“America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a written statement. “When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., saw Trump’s remarks as a violation of his sworn constitutional duty.
“For the President of the United States to stand next to Vladimir Putin — who personally ordered one of the largest state-sponsored cyber-attacks in our history — and side with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders is a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries.”
I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) July 16, 2018
For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak. The president is putting himself over our country.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) July 16, 2018
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders went so far as to call Trump an “idiot.”
Today is a good day for Putin and the oligarchs in Russia. It is a bad day for people in the United States and all over the world who believe in democracy and who are trying to understand what world our idiot president lives in.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 16, 2018
For Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the summit represented, at best, a “missed opportunity.”
Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.
This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves. (1/3)
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 16, 2018
Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential nominee and current U.S. Senate candidate in Utah, also took issue with the president’s apparent refusal to accept the findings of his own intelligence agencies.
“President Trump’s decision to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies is disgraceful and detrimental to our democratic principles. Russia remains our number one geopolitical adversary; claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility,” Romney said in a statement.
At least one Republican office holder, Ohio county GOP chairman Chris Gagin, concluded that he could no longer represent his party as a result of the Trump’s remarks.
The President is entitled to GOP party leaders, at all levels, fully committed to his views and agenda. Following today’s press conference with Pres. Putin, as well as certain policy differences, most especially on trade, I could no longer fulfill that duty. Thus, I resigned.
— Chris Gagin (@cgagin) July 16, 2018
Dan Coats, Trump’s own national intelligence director, took the remarkable step of issuing his own statement that refuted the president following the press conference.
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers,” Coats said in his statement. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan said Trump’s statements at the news conference were enough for Congress to consider impeachment.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous,” Brennan tweeted. “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering was also left aghast.
“It’s a breathtaking denial of something that is so clearly obviously true that it represents the epitome of President Trump’s effort at self-promotion over defending the national interest of the United States,” Pickering said on MSNBC.
The reaction to Trump’s defense of Putin was so strong on Twitter that the hashtag #TreasonSummit quickly topped the list of trending topics. (Other commenters preferred #SurrenderSummit.) The conclusion of many observers was equally intense.
I always resist these comparisons but Trump’s performance today will go down with Neville Chamberlain’s at Munich.
He just gave aid and comfort to a despot who invaded our elections.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) July 16, 2018
Suffice it to say that the takeaway for many Americans was not what Trump had hoped for.
Neil Cavuto of Fox Business calls Trump’s press conference “disgusting”, “That sets us back a lot.” pic.twitter.com/R2ZIjyFyPR
— Axios (@axios) July 16, 2018
Trump’s remarks at the news conference seemed to give Hillary Clinton an answer to a questions she had posed a day earlier.
Late in the day, former FBI director James Comey joined the fray.
This was the day an American president stood on foreign soil next to a murderous lying thug and refused to back his own country. Patriots need to stand up and reject the behavior of this president.
— James Comey (@Comey) July 16, 2018
Indeed, criticism of the president’s comments extended into quarters that usually have nothing but praise for Trump.
President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—-immediately.
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) July 16, 2018
Not all of the reaction to the news conference was negative. The praise from Vice President Mike Pence was notable, however, for just how out of step it sounded.
“What the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first,” Pence said in a statement.
More support came from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted:
“Bravo Trump! Bravo Russia! Bravo to all the true American Patriots who put America first and Peace and Justice first before the Zionist Deep Evil State ruling American Media and Politics. Russia has values America once had and America the values that Communist Russia had!”
Christopher Wilson contributed reporting to this story
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