WASHINGTON - United States President Donald Trump’s joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital Helsinki has left policy analysts back in the US perplexed – and ignited a fierce political backlash.
Apart from opposition Democrats, the backlash has largely been from Republicans, some of whom have little to lose; a number of the most outspoken are retiring. And thus far the only figure in the administration to contradict Mr Trump has been Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
The issue: Mr Trump’s seeming acceptance of a denial from Mr Putin of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election – and criticism of his own US intelligence agencies.
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers by name for interfering in the election.
Mr Trump regularly conflates allegations of Russian interference in the election with allegations of collusion as a conspiracy to delegitimise his election win.
In Helsinki on Monday (July 16), standing alongside Mr Putin, he said he did not see any reason why Russia would interfere in the election.
“President Putin said it is not Russia,” he said. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
Critics and many analysts saw this as a capitulation to Mr Putin.
Cancer-stricken Senator John McCain, a Republican stalwart often at odds with Mr Trump, said in a statement: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan said: “There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world.
“That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community, but also the House Committee on Intelligence.”
He added: “The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally... The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Pressed by reporters on Tuesday (July 17) morning, Mr Ryan said Congress may impose additional sanctions on Russia.
Said Mr Coats said in a statement: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Mr Trump pushed back, tweeting on Tuesday: “While I had a great meeting with NATO… I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!”
And Vice-President Mike Pence, speaking at an event, said: “President Donald Trump stands without apology as leader of the free world.”
Still, the President is likely to weather the storm.
“President Trump has an army of elected officials, appointed officials and highly partisan members of the media who serve as his enablers, remaining silent, tacitly or explicitly endorsing statements they know to be untrue or policies they know to be unwise or dangerous,” professor of American Studies Glenn Alt- schuler of Cornell University told The Straits Times.
“As long as they continue to do what they are currently doing, and as long as the Republicans control both Houses of Congress and an ever larger proportion of the judiciary, he will reign as well as rule.”