In Helsinki, the Donald comes a cropper

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo)

In hindsight, scheduling his most cherished meeting of all at the back-end of a highly-charged appearance at the Nato Summit in Brussels, followed by a barnstorming stopover through the UK, where he embarrassed his host, and fired up protestors almost wherever he went, may not have been the best idea Donald Trump ever had.

For Vladimir Putin, holding a summit with President Trump was a victory in itself.

While the U.S. leader went home to widespread criticism after their Monday meeting, the Russian president came home to universal praise in Moscow — even though there were no major breakthroughs, according to AP.

Yet most Russians aren’t saying Putin vanquished Trump. Instead they’re sympathizing with the U.S. president, portraying Trump as a victim of irrational domestic critics and aggressive journalists, because they are pinning hopes on him for improving relations over the long haul.

With U.S.-Russia tensions exceptionally high, the Kremlin set low expectations for the summit.

“Nobody in Moscow who is realistic had any illusions that this one meeting can produce any breakthroughs,” said Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The hope was at least we can start talking to each other.”

And in that, Putin got what he went for. Gabuev said Putin ably won over his domestic audiences, notably by pushing back at accusations of Russian election meddling with his own accusations against the U.S.

Russians welcomed Putin’s offer to allow the FBI to interrogate Russian military intelligence officials accused of hacking the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And they especially welcomed Putin’s insistence on a tit-for-tat deal aimed at discrediting U.S. sanctions against rich and powerful Russians.

And unsurprisingly, Russians welcomed Trump’s suggestion that he trusts Putin more than U.S. intelligence agencies.

Russian officialdom “will be super-cautious in order not to damage Donald Trump any more than he did himself,” Gabuev said.

Instead of being portrayed as a duel on the world stage, the summit was viewed in Russia as a meeting of two powerful men who discussed global problems and then had to face down a crowd of pesky journalists.

“Those who opposed the meeting will try to devalue the agreements made,” said Vladimir Olenchenko of Russia’s Institute of Global Economics and International Relations. “We hope that Trump will have enough political will and patience to overcome the resistance and continue dialogue with Russia.”

Putin sought to emphasize areas where Moscow and Washington could find some common ground, such as the Syrian crisis.

 “What makes you think that President Trump trusts me and I fully trust him?” Putin said. “He defends the interests of the United States, and I defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We are looking for ways how to narrow our differences and make our work constructive.”

Observers in Moscow remain cautious about what all this means for the long term.

But the Kremlin didn’t expect one meeting to bring an end to Western sanctions and a pullback of NATO forces deployed near Russia’s borders. Putin is hoping the summit took a first step toward normalizing relations — and most importantly, persuading the U.S. to recognize Russia as a global player whose interests must be taken into account.

The main result of the summit “is that it happened, despite the collapse that Russian-American relations are in,” Valery Garbuzov, head of the USA and Canada Institute in Moscow, told Komsomoskaya Pravda newspaper. “You can say it’s not much, but neither Putin nor Trump could do more.”

Trump’s “America First” slogan morphed into “Me First” as the president unloaded on the U.S. intelligence community and Justice Department to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy to deny him legitimacy. Trump also blamed American “foolishness and stupidity” for the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations, returning to themes he has repeated at political rallies around the United States over the last three years.

This time, though, he was on foreign soil, standing next to Vladimir Putin, the very man whose government is accused of interfering in the 2016 election to favor Trump. As such, his extraordinary performance on Monday fueled criticism of his presidency from both the right and left. And it will likely embolden Putin, who faced no pushback from Trump over the election allegations or a long list of other Kremlin actions, ranging from Syria to Ukraine.

Sure enough, critics and even some usually reliable defenders were quick to pounce.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Speaker Paul Ryan, former speaker Newt Gingrich,, one of Trump’s most important assets in the Republican establishment that despises him, outgoing Congressman Trey Gowdy, all issued statements of rebuke even as Air Force One carried the president and his entourage back to America, following a truly incendiary week in Europe.

It’s unlikely Trump would ever admit to failure, or even just coming off second-best, but as he will find once he is back in the White House, this time even Fox News is struggling to provide comfort. Sure, their criticism is nowhere near as stinging as that of CNN or MSNBC (who, let’s face it, were more-or-less rooting for him to stumble, not that they’d admit it). But even their anchors, packed with Trump cheerleaders, have been finding it hard to spin the fact that Trump imploded, plain and simple, towards the end of the joint press conference that rounded off an intriguing day in the hot Helsinki summer.

The MAGA crowd will point to the reporters’ ‘gotcha’ questions getting under the US president’s famously thin skin, but the hints were there even in the rambling opening statement, as he unnecessarily brought up the Democrats and casitigated them for being what he called ‘obstructionist’. By the end, he was probably two steps or less from breaking into one of his campaign chants pointed at Hillary Clinton (‘Lock her up’). But thankfully we were spared that.

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