US president Donald Trump is in Helsinki for a one-on-one (plus translators), no-advisers-allowed meeting with Russian premier Vladimir Putin. And seemingly everyone is convinced that Russia is undermining liberal democracy, indulging in nefarious interventions around the world, and even dead-set on reviving some larger Russia, for which the annexation of Crimea was only the start. Everyone, that is, except Trump.
So, on the eve of this most black-boxed of presidential tête-à-têtes, his own Justice Department issued an indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Senators and 18 Democratic members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs have called on Trump to abort the meeting. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, Trump's own team constantly expressed a fear of Russian aggression.
Just this past week, Trump's director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, compared the danger of Russian cyberattacks to the terrorist threat posed to the US in the run-up to 9/11. In his trepidation, Coats was merely following Trump's former national security adviser, General HR McMaster, who warned last year: 'Russia and China are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.' Likewise, defence secretary Jim Mattis, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and current national security adviser John Bolton have all been sounding the alarm about Russia's intentions, and urging Trump to go in hard on Russia's electoral meddling.
Yet Trump seemingly refuses to toe his team's line, let alone that of Congress or the Justice Department. Instead, he seems content to accept the Kremlin's contention that 'the meddling never happened', or, as he put it in November, 'Every time [Putin] sees me, he says, "I didn't do that", and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it'. More striking still, some worry that Trump may even recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2015 as legitimate, despite the US, the EU and NATO all condemning it as a violation of international law and subsequently imposing sanctions. Trump, however, has said that Crimea ought to be part of Russia, given that the majority of Crimeans speak Russian. 'That is not the position of the United States', countered Bolton.