President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a joint press conference Monday following their diplomatic summit in Helsinki, Finland, and Trump’s performance shocked the world.
Trump displayed his loyalty to Putin and disregard for his own top intelligence officials’ concerns about Russian meddling in American democracy. He spent far more time talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails than he did on the annexation of Crimea, human rights, or the importance of a free media. Putin gleefully dismissed any criticism and cheered Trump along.
Right-wing media subsequently — and unsurprisingly — parroted Putin and Trump’s assertions as fact.
Reading only conservative media would yield the average reader no sign that there was any factual problem with Trump or Putin’s surprisingly copacetic view of the world.
Right-wing conspiracy site Gateway Pundit, for instance, focused on a baseless claim Putin made during the press conference, in which he suggested U.S. intelligence had somehow “move[d] $400 million” into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Daily Caller’s homepage gave the impression that Trump confronted Putin about meddling, and despite the “off the rails” criticism from former CIA Director John Brennan, the collusion claims were unfounded. The site also suggested Putin had proved as much by fact-checking an American journalist in the room and asking for facts to support the intelligence community’s claims.
The site also ran an article under the headline, “What Trump Told Putin About Election Meddling” that simply repeated Trump’s watered-down quote from the press conference:
As president, I will always put what is best for America and what is best for the American people. During today’s meeting I addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. Spent a great deal of time talking about it and president Putin may very well want to address it and very strongly.
The rest of the articles on the front page boost Putin’s claim that his government’s collusion with the Trump campaign is “utter nonsense,” trumpet Trump’s fundraising success for his re-election bid, and criticize Brennan.
InfoWars, a right-wing conspiracy theory site, took Putin’s denial of Russia election meddling at face value. “Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. election and never will, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Infowars founder Alex Jones tweeted.
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) July 16, 2018
Other Trump apologists heaped more praise on Trump’s handling of the press conference. Trump apologist Bill Mitchell, a right-wing radio host, argued that standing up to Putin would backfire.
“Would Putin be any less likely to ‘meddle in our elections,’ if Trump had said, ‘BAD BOY!’ in Helsinki today? Really? An ex KGB guy who cares that the President of the United States disapproves of his behavior? Please,” he tweeted. “If anything it would have caused Putin to double down.”
Would Putin be any less likely to "meddle in our elections," if Trump had said, 'BAD BOY!" in Helsinki today?
Really? An ex KGB guy who cares that the President of the United States disapproves of his behavior? Please.
If anything it would have caused Putin to double down.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) July 16, 2018
Fox News’ immediate coverage of Trump’s performance was surprisingly more nuanced than usual. Anchor Bill Hemmer repeatedly called it “a remarkable and fascinating 40 minutes.” Bret Baier went a bit further, saying “that was quite something, almost surreal at points.”
Fox Business host Neil Cavuto appeared stunned. “This is most incredible thing I ever witnessed,” he said after the press conference. “I can’t see, you know, the front of reporters faces because you get backs of their heads but I imagine a number of dropped jaws.” Cavuto was shocked that Trump did not rebuke Putin for attempting to influence American election.
“That made it disgusting,” he said. “That made his performance disgusting. Only way I feel. Not a right or left thing to me. It is wrong. U.S. President foreign soil talking to our biggest enemy or adversary or competitor, I don’t know how we define them away, essentially letting the guy get away with this, not even, offering a mild, a mild criticism. That sets us back a lot.”
Chief White House correspondent John Roberts highlighted the inexplicably friendly relationship between Putin and Trump on Monday:
President Trump came into this meeting wanting to establish a much more friendly relationship with Russia than he had going in. … And here is an indication of just how far the president wants to go to make sure that he can have a good relationship with Vladimir Putin:
When the president was asked whether or not he believed the intelligence agencies or what Vladimir Putin told him about meddling in the election, he completely deflected. … He’s developed a little bit of an inroad with Putin, Putin has come a little bit closer to him and he does not want to spoil that with a question about whether or not he believes Putin.
Fox News contributors, usually a friendly retreat for the president, were similarly alarmed.
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief, noted that Trump’s openness to having Russia’s investigators work with the Department of Justice on indictments of Russian intelligence officers, “is like inviting a criminal to help you solve a crime that you know that they committed.”
“I would argue in the long term, that’s bad for our country and for the Republican party, not a good thing,” he said. “I think we should have been harder on the Russians.”
Ed Henry suggested Trump’s willingness to believe Putin was “going to backfire on him.” He referred to other moments that were “stunning” and made him “lose [his] breath.”
Lavrov, asked how the summit went, responds:
"Fabulous…better than super." https://t.co/Ah7IbiWit0
— Anton Troianovski (@antontroian) July 16, 2018
In a telling development, Washington Post Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski reported Monday afternoon that several Russian officials also felt the press conference had gone extraordinarily well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked about how the summit went, told reporters, “Fabulous…better than super.”