Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Carol Leonnig
Administration officials had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Monday’s summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would end differently – without a freewheeling 46-minute news conference in which Mr Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised arch rival Russia.
Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Mr Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture towards Mr Putin, but the President ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Mr Trump’s remarks were “very much counter to the plan”, the person said.
“Everyone around Trump” was urging him to take a firm stance with Mr Putin, according to a second person familiar with the preparations. Before Monday’s meeting, the second person said, advisers covered matters from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its interference in the US elections, but Mr Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.
“I think that the United States has been foolish,” Mr Trump said at one point, referring to tensions with Russia. “I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”
A senior White House official disputed the idea that the President acted unilaterally, and said he had numerous sessions with senior administration officials preparing for the summit in addition to briefing materials.
In the end, Mr Trump’s performance alongside Mr Putin seemed like a tour through his most controversial conspiracy theories, tweets and off-the-cuff musings on Russia – except he did it all while abroad, standing just feet from Mr Putin, the leader of one of America’s greatest geopolitical foes.
The spectacle in Helsinki also underscored Mr Trump’s eagerness to disregard his own advisers, his willingness to flout the conclusions of his own intelligence community – that Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections – and his apparent fear that pressing Mr Putin on the subject might cast doubt on his electoral victory.
“The President has been more reluctant than most to weigh into the idea that Russia did it and they’re still doing it,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham. “He felt that would undermine his own election.”
This account of the days leading up to Mr Trump’s Helsinki summit is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen White House officials, advisers and diplomats, most of whom requested anonymity to reveal internal discussions.
Signs that things might not go according to plan were evident during the two days Mr Trump spent holed up at his luxury seaside golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland.
The President spent much of the weekend “growling”, in the words of one White House official, over the Justice Department’s indictment on Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officials for interfering in the 2016 election. He fretted that the timing of the indictments was intended to injure him politically, the official said.
But a senior White House official said Mr Trump had been in favour of announcing the indictments before the trip so he could raise the issue privately with Mr Putin.
Mr Trump also made it clear that he was more excited to sit down with the Russian President than he had been to visit with NATO allies earlier in the week in Brussels.
“He loved the summit with Kim Jong-un,” the White House official said, referring to the North Korean leader with whom Mr Trump met last month in Singapore. “He thinks he can sit down eye to eye with these guys, flatter them and make a deal.”
In advance of the Putin meeting, White House officials repeatedly told European allies “not to worry”, according to diplomats familiar with the discussions. No deals would be made between Mr Putin and Mr Trump, they said, and no secret promises would be offered that could threaten the balance of power on the continent.
They also said the summit would have a declaration text that was short and generic.
But the officials could not provide similar assurances about the summit’s live news conference, a setting where the President routinely defies the carefully laid plans of his White House team.
One European official acknowledged the difficulty of relying on the assurances of Mr Trump’s aides, saying: “These people don’t control the reality.”
Mr Putin almost seemed unable to hide his delight as Mr Trump, standing just to his right, excoriated the FBI, Hillary Clinton and Democrats, among others, and said he held “both” Russia and the United States responsible for the declining relations between the two countries.
Mr Trump had grown frustrated that his own government had been so negative about meeting with Mr Putin and wanted a one-on-one meeting so it would not leak, aides said. One senior White House official described Mr Trump’s public remarks as striking a deliberately “contrarian” tone.
Administration officials said Mr Trump’s national security team – including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – has generally urged him to be tough on Mr Putin and to view the Russian leader through a far more negative prism than he does.
Mr Trump’s remarks in Helsinki were met with widespread condemnation, including from many within his own party.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats put out a statement distancing himself from Mr Trump and his comments. “The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers,” Mr Coats said in the 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.”
As Mr Trump flew back to Washington aboard Air Force One late on Monday, he and his team struggled to quell the outcry.
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” tweeted Newt Gingrich, a steadfast Trump ally and former Republican House speaker, whose wife Trump appointed ambassador to the Vatican. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected – immediately.”
Mr Trump issued a tweet that seemed to backtrack slightly. “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’ ” he wrote. “However, I also recognise that to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018.”
One of Mr Trump’s most vocal defenders was Vice-President Mike Pence, who has cemented his relationship with the President through unflinching loyalty.
In a speech to Commerce Department employees on Monday afternoon, Mr Pence offered a rosy review of what he described as Mr Trump’s “historic trip” abroad.
“The truth is, over the last week, the world saw once again that President Donald Trump stands without apology as leader of the free world,” Mr Pence said. “What the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first.”