President Trump's summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday was a disaster, according to a wide range of observers.
Republicans and Democrats, conservative and liberal news outlets, and retired military officials all concluded that Putin was the meeting's clear winner.
CNN called Monday “a day that will live in infamy,” and described the summit as “one of the most notorious moments in the tortured relations between Washington and Moscow.”
Trump sided with Putin in rejecting U.S. intelligence agencies' claims that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help defeat Hillary Clinton. “The president missed a prime opportunity to confront Putin face-to-face and assert with some level of forcefulness that we know that you did this and here's what we are going to do if you don't stop,” said Richard Ledgett, former deputy director of the National Security Agency.
When Putin said during a news conference after the meeting that he would order Kremlin intelligence agencies to “investigate” the election-tampering allegations, Trump naively called the pledge an “incredible offer.”
The president argued that the primary obstacle to good relations between the United States and Russia is Robert Mueller, the Justice Department special counsel who is looking into how Putin meddled in the election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with him.
Trump did not challenge Putin on the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, or his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rather than answering reporters' questions about those issues, the president blasted Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. “Where is the server?” he asked. “What is the server saying?”
Trump's decision to not criticize Putin “will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves,” according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Others accused the president of not adequately preparing for the meeting, and allowing his counterpart to outmaneuver him. “This is a major mistake,” Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's former White House communications director, told CNN. “This is not a mistake of words, by the way, this is not a bad PR kerfuffle. This is a mistake of strategy and execution. This is a mistake of thinking and you have your ego involved. He has to speak out about it and reverse course immediately.”
Republican congressional leaders also voiced displeasure with Trump's performance. “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed that “the Russians are not our friends, adding: “I have complete confidence in our intelligence community and the findings that they have announced.”
John Kasich, the GOP governor of Ohio, agreed. “We need to be clear. Russia is our foe,” he said. “Putin is actively trying to hurt our country. America needs to speak with one voice against Russia.”
Sen. John McCain was more blunt. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” the Arizona Republican said in a written statement. “Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are — a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Trump's most loyal defenders, called on the president to “clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin.” The Georgia Republican tweeted that the summit was “the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected immediately.”
Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a former contributor to Fox News, proclaimed that “Vladimir Putin pitched a shutout” and called Trump a “disgrace.” Former CIA Director John Brennan went even further, suggesting on MSNBC that the president committed treason.
Many in the intelligence community expressed anger and exasperation. They warned that by not acknowledging Russian interference in the White House race, Trump might be allowing Putin to influence the outcome of this year's mid-term congressional elections, as well.
“Warning lights are blinking red again,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said last week. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders described the summit as “an embarrassing spectacle,” and slammed the president for failing to “make clear that interference in our elections is unacceptable.” The Vermont independent tweeted: “Trump accepted Putin's denials and cast doubt on the conclusions of our intelligence community. Today is a good day for Putin and the oligarchs in Russia. It is a bad day for people in the United States and all over the world who believe in democracy and who are trying to understand what world our idiot president lives in.”