Reuters reporter Jeff Mason had a simple question for President Donald Trump at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
“Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it’s US foolishness, stupidity, and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in US relations with Russia,” Mason said. “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? If so, what would you consider then that they are responsible for?”
It was something of a softball. President Trump could have given criticism — even mild criticism — of Putin’s regime on any number of topics. Most notably, there’s the 12 Russian intelligence officers whom special counsel Robert Mueller charged in relation with the hacks of Democratic National Convention and Clinton campaign emails on Friday. There are also the poisonings on British soil, Russian policies in Ukraine and Syria, and any number of other topics.
Trump refused to do so. Instead, he embarked on a rambling answer making it unmistakably clear that he cares nothing at all about the Russian election interference, instead directing his true ire toward Mueller, Democrats, the DNC, a “Pakistani gentleman,” Peter Strzok, and the people responsible for prosecuting Michael Flynn. (He also bragged about his Electoral College win.)
Trump says he holds both countries responsible, but only talks about the US
The president began by very briefly and vaguely saying he held both the US and Russia responsible for poor relations, before blaming the US (under President Barack Obama) for being “foolish” and saying relations are now improving:
I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office. I think we’re all to blame.
I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia. We’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping — you have to do it. Ultimately, that’s probably the most important thing that we can be working on. I do feel that we have both made some mistakes.
Then he pivoted to attacking Mueller’s probe as a “disaster for our country,” while asserting that he beat Clinton fair and square and insisting there was “zero collusion” between his campaign and the Russian government. (That’s true if you assume that the many secretive contacts Trump’s team had with Russians all led nowhere and resulted in nothing. In any case, Mueller is continuing to investigate the matter.)
I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. People are being brought out to the fore. So far as I know, virtually, none of it related to the campaign. They will have to try really hard to find something that did relate to the campaign. That was a clean campaign.
I beat Hillary Clinton easily and, frankly, we beat her and I’m not even saying from the standpoint, we won that race. It’s a shame there could be a cloud over it. People know that. People understand it. The main — we discussed this also — is zero collusion. It has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.
Making false claims about the Electoral College
After a follow-up question from Mason, Trump continued in a similar vein, touting the strength of his Electoral College victory and falsely insisting the Electoral College benefits Democrats. (Obviously that’s disproven by the outcome of the 2016 election itself — Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, yet it is Trump who is president today.)
As you know, the concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans. We won the Electoral College by a lot. 306 to 223, I believe. That was a well-fought battle. We did a great job.
“No collusion” and an allusion to Michael Flynn
The president then again insisted there was “no collusion with the campaign.” He pointed out that the indicted Russian intelligence officers were not involved with the campaign — not mentioning that they did privately communicate with his longtime adviser Roger Stone.
Frankly, I’m going to let the president speak to the second part of your question. Just to say it one time again and I say it all the time, there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to include with. There was no collusion with the campaign. Every time you hear all of these 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has, frankly, they admit, these are not people involved in the campaign. But to the average reader out there, they are saying, maybe that does. It doesn’t.
Trump went on to make an oblique allusion to the case of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s probe.
Even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories. In one case, the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president. Thank you.
Here, Trump alludes to reports in conservative media that the FBI didn’t think Flynn was lying when they first interviewed him — reports that Trump’s allies have used to suggest there was some FBI wrongdoing with regards to Flynn being charged.
But this is misleading — what actually seems to have happened is that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn saw “no physical indications of deception” in him. Obviously it is possible for someone to lie but not give physical indications of it. In any case, Flynn eventually did plead guilty to the FBI, so if he wasn’t in fact lying back in that January 2017 interview, he was lying when he agreed to his plea.
Two favorite right-wing conspiracy theories: the DNC server and a “Pakistani gentleman”
Later in the press conference, an Associated Press reporter posed an even starker question to Trump — asking him whom he believed, the US intelligence agencies asserting Putin interfered with the 2016 election or Putin’s own denials of it. He also asked whether Trump would “denounce” what happened in 2016 and “warn” Putin never to do it again.
Trump did no such thing, instead immediately launching into a conspiratorial rant about the investigation and Democrats. He began by questioning why the FBI “never took” the DNC’s “server,” another favorite talking point of right-wing media.
So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server, why haven’t they taken the server. Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee. I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying. With that being said, all I can do is ask the question.
In reality, Friday’s indictment presented a wealth of technical evidence attributing the DNC hack to specific Russian intelligence officers. It does not seem that they needed “the server.”
My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others and said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC?
That last bit alludes to another bogus right-wing conspiracy theory — that Imran Awan, a staffer for Democrats who’d recently pleaded guilty to unrelated financial charges, was involved in stealing Democratic data. As Will Sommer recently wrote for the Daily Beast, Awan’s plea agreement includes a passage saying the government found no evidence that this was true.
Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails and Peter Strzok
Trump continues in this vein, alluding again that the true unspecified wrongdoing must have been committed by Hillary Clinton. Here he alludes to an old classic — how Clinton deleted tens of thousands of emails on her personal account that she’d also used for work, saying those emails were personal and not work-related.
Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.
So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.
Indeed, Trump outright asked Russia to “find” these deleted emails of Clinton’s, on July 27, 2016, in a public press conference. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And according to Mueller’s new indictment, Russian intelligence officers made a new hacking attempt on email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office later that day.
Finally, after Putin responded to a question about whether he had compromising information on Trump, Trump himself got the last word — and alluded to Peter Strzok’s recent congressional testimony.
And I have to say if they had it, it would have been out long ago. And if anybody watched Peter Strzok testify over the last couple of days, and I was in Brussels watching it, it was a disgrace to the FBI. It was a disgrace to our country. And you would say that was a total witch hunt. Thank you very much, everybody.
Strzok is the FBI agent involved in the Trump-Russia investigation who was removed from the probe after it emerged that he’d extensively texted to his co-worker and lover about his disdain for Trump. But while his recent testimony was indeed a circus, no one was able to point to anything specific Strzok actually did to help Clinton win or hurt Trump. And he’s been gone from the Mueller probe for nearly a year now.
Overall, the takeaway is clear. Trump couldn’t care less about Russian hacking attempts to interfere with the election. He views Mueller, the Justice Department, and Democrats as his true enemies. And he’s willing to viciously attack them even while standing onstage with the Russian president.