If you looked carefully at the setup for the press conference with President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday, there was something off. Something big.
Standing before a row of alternating Russian and American flags, Trump stood squarely in front of a Russian flag, while Putin spoke with his own Russian flag over one shoulder and America’s stars and stripes over the other. With Trump praising Putin and Putin defending the American president as someone who — trust him — stood firm for his country in their two-hour private confab, it was impossible at times to figure out who was on Russia’s side and who, if anyone, was speaking for America.
On the question of Russia hacking the U.S. elections, for which the Department of Justice issued 12 indictments against Russian nationals last week, President Trump mostly wanted to know why the FBI had not tracked down Hillary Clinton’s private server.
“Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they?” Trump demanded with Putin looking on. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.”
Between his own intelligence community and the president of Russia, Trump seemed far more impressed by Putin’s position on whether Russia has tampered with the American elections.
“I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said.
On the question of who is to blame for the rocky American-Russian relationship, Trump split responsibility equally between the two: “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. … I think we’re all to blame.”
Not for a moment did Putin offer that Russia should get any of the blame for the current low point in relations, which includes new sanctions and expelled diplomats in retaliation for Russian aggression. But he did agree with Trump that the right candidate won the American elections in 2016.
“Yes, I did [want him to win]. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal. Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us?”
Watch: Schumer: Trump Should Explain Putin Meeting
To Putin’s question, yes, it is easy to see why he would want Trump to be president. The American president undermined NATO more in one week than any Soviet or Russian leader had managed to in 70 years.
Trump seems more than willing to ignore the growing chorus of warnings from his own Cabinet that Russia is a clear and present danger to the United States. And thanks to his electoral advantage and sheer force of personality, Trump has managed to neutralize Republicans in Washington to the point that his performance on Monday drew pointed criticism only from the small band of usual suspects who must be exhausted by now of seeing only each other on their side of the fight.
Sen. John McCain, true to himself through the ravages of brain cancer, called Monday “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. ... No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, who chose to retire rather than face conservative primary voters in the Trump era, called Trump’s statements “shameful.”
Sen. Bob Corker, another voluntary casualty of Trump’s politics, said the president’s performance made the United States “look like a pushover,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan, yet another preemptive departure from the scene, said the president must “appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
If any statement came as a surprise to casual observers, it was that of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who strongly stood up for the intelligence that the president had dismissed in favor of Putin’s assurances.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said, “and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
But to not-so-casual observers, Coats’ defense of the intelligence community was actually a follow-up to the stark warning he issued just five days ago at the Hudson Institute, where he said “the warning lights are blinking red again” on the danger coming from Russian actions.
Like the rapid-fire pace of intelligence warnings before 9/11, Coats said the pace and ferocity of Russian intelligence attacks on the United States since 2015 have raised this moment in time to what he considers “a critical point.”
“And it’s not just the elections.” America, are you listening? “It’s not just the elections.” While the president and members of Congress look back to the 2016 election, lost in their did-they-or-didn’t-they squabbles (they did, by the way, assures Coats), the director of national intelligence warned last Friday that Russian actors are also aggressively exploring vulnerabilities in our nation’s critical infrastructure.
If you really want to lose sleep at night, take a look at the report from the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team about Russian hacking since 2016 that continues to this day. In March of this year, Russia hacked into American water treatment and power facilities that they could have sabotaged or shut off entirely. They have also hacked into American nuclear plants, aviation assets, businesses, banks and state and local governments.
Think of anything important in your life with a computer system — a hospital, doctor’s office, school, office, grocery store — and then imagine it shut off without warning. Then you start to see the picture.
“Despite Kremlin denials to the contrary ... these actions are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine American democracy on a daily basis regardless of whether it is election time or not,” Coats said.
The good news, Coats added, is that unlike 9/11, when intelligence agencies were disconnected and often at odds, “The intelligence community today is more integrated than it ever has been.” And it is united in its agreement that Russia is an ongoing threat to the United States.
The bad news is that, this time around, standing in front of the Russian flag, we seem to have a president who doesn’t believe it.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.