US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press conference on Monday after their meeting in Helsinki was, by many accounts, a disaster.
But that’s not even the worst part.
Yes, Trump bashed America’s intelligence agencies while siding with Putin — and he received basically nothing in return for it.
Here’s what Putin “got” during his 45-minute press conference with Trump:
- He got recognition on the world stage alongside the US president.
- Trump didn’t criticize Putin for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, or in European allies’ elections
- Trump said Putin’s offer to send Russian government investigators to look into Moscow’s election hacking was “an interesting idea.”
- Trump didn’t shame Putin for working with Iran to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and relentlessly bombing innocent civilians.
- Trump didn’t push back on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or annexation of Crimea in 2014 or his attempt to take over Georgia in 2008.
- Trump didn’t condemn Russia for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 in 2014 or Moscow’s apparent use of a deadly nerve agent in the UK this year.
- Putin made Trump look bad by refusing to deny he had “compromising material” on the American leader.
That’s a lot of points on the board for Putin, but surely Trump matched — or even surpassed — those wins, right? In reality, it wasn’t even close.
Here’s what Trump gained (and all three of these points are potentially good for Putin too):
- The chance — albeit a small one — of continuing dialogue to significantly improve relations between the two countries
- The resumption of a joint business-focused, high-level working group to deepen US-Russia economic ties
- A vague declaration from Putin that Russia wants to extend a nuclear arms reduction treaty that would cap the use of both countries’ nuclear weapons
So Trump, when given his best opportunity to lambaste Russia on the world stage and display America’s global leadership, let Putin off easy. But he gave a lot in return.
“It looks like US national interests would have been better served had Trump stayed home,” Steven Pifer, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me.
The Trump-Putin meeting could have been much worse
There is, however, another way of looking at the whole ordeal: Trump could have given away a lot more than he did.
Experts feared Trump might strike a deal with Putin over Syria that would include the US removing its 2,000 troops from the country and letting Russia manage the end of the war. That would have been a bad trade, especially since Russia has no incentive to stop helping Assad attack US-backed fighters in the country.
Trump also could have recognized Russia’s illegal takeover of Crimea. Last month, he reportedly told leaders at the G7 summit in Quebec that Crimea might as well belong to Russia because the majority of people there speak Russian — a talking point straight out of the Kremlin.
Yet Putin noted, oddly, during the press conference with Trump that the US position still held that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.
The summit actually had little substance to it; it was so hastily put together over the past few weeks that neither side had enough time to hammer out any major diplomatic announcements.
But that didn’t stop Trump from doing a lot of damage by giving Putin much of what he wanted and handing the Russian leader a major victory in the process.
“Unless there is something we don’t know about, this was a very good summit for Putin,” says Pifer.