I admit, I fell for it: the Trump-Putin first-meeting hype. For days, reporters and pundits, myself included, have insisted that President Donald Trump had to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about the finding by four US intelligence agencies that Putin “directed” a hacking assault on the Democratic Party intended to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton last year. The confrontation at the G-20 summit was set up as a test of each leader’s manhood.
Of course, by the accounts of their courtiers, both emerged the bigger man. US diplomats claim Trump confronted Putin about Russian election meddling; their Russian counterparts admit it came up but claim both men agreed there’s no evidence it happened.
So, predictably, the meeting delivered nothing of substance. Trump lowered the stakes for it himself with a ridiculous tweet about the Russia hacking charges just hours before his first encounter with Putin:
Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 7, 2017
It was one of Trump’s more obvious, desperate lies. No one at the G-20 was talking about Podesta’s refusing to give the Democratic National Committee’s server to intelligence agencies, not least of all because it didn’t happen: Podesta ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign, not the DNC, though both saw their accounts hacked by actors “directed” by Putin, according to a January statement by those four US intelligence agencies.
Trump’s false Tweet showed the extent to which he’s shut out the details of Russian meddling in the 2016 election: he can’t keep the targets straight. (You could argue Trump’s confusion was deliberate, but that requires ignoring what we know about the incurious, under-informed president.) The tweet also showed the extent to which he’s still rattled by the charge of Putin’s interference, because it casts more doubt on his legitimacy as president, given that he lost the popular vote by 3 million. Summoning the ghost of John Podesta to ward off claims that he owes his presidency to Putin was a typical Trump distraction ploy.
On Thursday, Trump had again expressed doubt that Russia was the culprit, with his trademark mangled syntax, first saying he believed the evidence, and then backtracking:
I think it was Russia. And I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been a lot of people interfered. I’ve said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries, and I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. I think it has been happening for a long time. It has been happening for many, many years.
So, essentially, it didn’t matter what Trump and Putin discussed on Friday in Hamburg, Germany; we know that Trump dismisses evidence of Putin’s involvement in the hacking scandal, whatever the official “readout” of their meeting.