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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Trump under fire for attacking US institutions, going soft on Putin

Former intelligence director calls Trump’s attacks 'treasonous'

US President Donald Trump and First lady Melania Trump flank Vladimir Putin as the Russian president gifts a football in Helsinki, Finland. Reuters
US President Donald Trump and First lady Melania Trump flank Vladimir Putin as the Russian president gifts a football in Helsinki, Finland. Reuters

Attacking Democrats from foreign soil, while calling the US approach to Russia “foolish” and the Mueller investigation “a disaster”, Donald Trump lit a firestorm at home, as members of both parties criticised his comments and his weak handling of Vladimir Putin.

Even before his first summit with Mr Putin, critics of the US president were sceptical about his intentions and the Democratic opposition called on him to cancel the meeting after the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence members by the US Justice Department on Friday.

But as Mr Trump broke tradition in Helsinki and criticised Democrats, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller from foreign soil, he was seen as having crossed a line and handed a win to the Russian president.

“If Mr Putin is a religious man, he must think he died and went to heaven” Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel told The National.

Leaving Helsinki with no tangible concessions from Russia while giving Moscow a “a total pass on illegal annexation of Crimea, on Russian chemical attacks in the UK” the meeting was “game, set, and match to Putin”, Mr Shapiro said.

The former US official said that while testing the ground on US-Russian cooperation in Syria “is a welcome focus” from the summit, there “were no specifics.. namely, how to ensure Iranian forces are expelled from Syria.”

Mr Trump, said Mr Shapiro, kept “silent both on the genocidal Assad regime's Russian-sponsored victory, and on Mr Putin's ridiculous claims to be concerned about humanitarian suffering in Syria.”

But it was Mr Trump’s attacks on US policy of his predecessors and the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections that raised eyebrows in Washington.

James Comey, the former head of FBI who was sacked by Mr Trump, tweeted that 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.”

“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous,” John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, tweeted.

“Missed opportunity” and an “answer by President Trump [that] will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness”, quipped Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He even advised him to check the soccer ball gifted by Mr Putin for listening devices:

Another Republican Senator, Jeff Flake, called Mr Trump’s words “shameful”. Flake is retiring this November.

In a statement, Senator John McCain said the meeting was “a tragic mistake” and a new low point for the United States.

“Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are: a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” Mr McCain said.

In a statement, Senator John McCain said the meeting was “a tragic mistake” and a new low point for the United States.

“Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are: a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” Mr McCain said.

Senator Susan Collins from Maine, a moderate Republican, said that “the President’s statements today in Helsinki demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of US intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee.” She also tweeted:

Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell also decided to clarify his position. In a statement released by his office, he reiterated his views that Russia “is not our friend, and he agrees with the findings of the intelligence community regarding Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections.”

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives and one of the president’s staunchest allies, tweeted:

By late afternoon on Monday, Mr Trump appeared to be standing alone within his own party. Senator Marco Rubio called Mr Putin and adversary who “thinks only way to make Russia stronger is to make US weaker.”

Even Senator Orrin Hatch who is not known to be a critic of Mr Trump, said “Russia interfered in the 2016 election... From the President on down, we must do everything in our power to protect our democracy.”

Democratic senators were understandably quick to attack the president. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who may run in 2020, said Mr Trump has embarrassed America, and embraced a dictator.

Even those within Mr Trump's team were reportedly surprised by his statements. CNN said a White House official texted one of its reporters asking, “how bad was that?” in reference to the press conference.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refrained from commenting.