By J.D. Durkin
For all of the potential topics that could have been the most widely discussed after Monday’s Helsinki summit — the annexation of Crimea, military operations in Syria, Snowden, that weird soccer ball thing — perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that election meddling would be the one to dominate the headlines.
If it wasn’t the defining issue of the White House before Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met in Finland, it certainly is now. A quick glance at the headlines sum up the perplexing tale of the day:
‘How bad was that?’: Even Trump aides question damage done - CNN
Trump’s Helsinki Bow To Putin Leaves World Wondering: Why? - NPR
Trump face bipartisan rebuke over ‘treasonous’ summit with Putin - Al Jazeera
Trump’s Failure at Putin Summit Will Come Back to Haunt Him - New York Post Editorial Board
PUTIN DOMINATES IN HEL - Drudge Report
And even here in Amsterdam, the site of my 5-hour layover from Helsinki, this headline, I suspect, will be recognizable even to those who forget their casual grade school Dutch:
En De Winnaar Is: Poetin! - De Telegraaf
But in the furor that followed Trump’s comments minimizing the possibility that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, little attention has fallen on Jeff Mason of Reuters and Jon Lemire of the Associated Press, two American White House reporters who got the ball rolling.
In an environment where the free press is under constant attack from the man (or, far more correctly, both men) behind the podiums, Mason and Lemire opened the door to allow the whole world to watch — with collective mouth agape — the astonishing results. Just hours before the event in Helsinki’s Presidential Palace, Trump tweeted his latest derision of the press, saying “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people.”
And two days before that, the U.S. President stood on foreign soil in the UK and attacked various American news outlets as “fake” for asking tough questions.
Mason and Lemire’s questions read simple enough. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called on Mason first, then Lemire (emphasis mine):
JEFF MASON, REUTERS: 1. Thank you. Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it's U.S. foolishness, stupidity, and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in U.S. relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable or anything in particular? And if so, what would you what would you consider them that they are responsible for?
- For President Putin, if I could follow up as well. Why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election, given the evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided? And will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a U.S. grand jury?… Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?
JON LEMIRE, AP: 1. President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you sir is, who do you believe? My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?
- A question for President Putin. Two questions for you, sir. Can you tell me what President Trump may have indicated to you about officially recognizing Crimea as part of Russia? And then secondly, sir, do you, does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?
These were not “gotcha” questions, the type that make conservative defenders of the administration go mad in their defense of President Trump. These were well-researched, simple, and searing questions. On Cheddar, I described the tense moments after Lemire’s question on kompromat as “sucking the oxygen out of the room” while we all waited for what felt like an entire election cycle for Putin to answer (fact check: it was just a few seconds. But it truly felt like forever).
Trump’s responses to these questions are what stole the show, most specifically his refusal to embrace the findings of his own intelligence officers into election meddling in 2016 — and his willingness to accept Putin’s denials. The two leaders prepared remarks were largely forgotten.
On the question of holding Russia accountable, Trump replied, “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish.” As for Lemire’s question on denouncing Russia’s actions, Trump spun off into a tangent that included the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s email server. Then — after Lemire pinned Putin to reveal the nature of compromising material, Trump willingly added on at the end in a quick answer that included the name FBI agent Peter Strzok, for some reason.
Mason and Lemire’s questions earned the immediate plaudits of their White House Press Corps and industry colleagues. Politico’s Annie Karni, who served as official pooler on the historic day, tweeted a photo of the two reporters wheels up from Helsinki with the appropriate caption “Today’s winners take off.” HuffPost editor Lydia Polgreen hailed the questions as “really great, tough questions… with firm professionalism. Hats off.”
After talking with other White House reporters, it became clear that the questions from the press conference were “aha moments” even to many journalists. One colleague summed it up well by saying that Mason and Lemire’s questions were perfectly delivered to represent the crux of all of the noise and headache-inducing frenzy that comes with the neverending Russia-Trump saga.
Many people are noting the true historical importance of what transpired in Helsinki — that somehow President Trump’s performance may be examined throughout the future of American history as a seminal exchange where the heir to Madison, Lincoln, and FDR chose to side with a murderous adversary over the democracy he swore to protect.
The blowback was so severe among Democrats and Republicans that Trump was forced to backtrack on some of his comments, saying on Tuesday he now accepts "our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place."
Even so, a sobering but important thought emerges further: we may never know the most shocking exchanges of the day, as the two world leaders mysteriously met behind closed doors for two hours with no aides, no notetakers, and no record — only two (presumably very trustworthy) translators.
For the President to lose the public support of so many conservative defenders suggests that something may be truly different this time, and that the lessons of diplomacy, brinkmanship, and deal-making from #Helsinki2018 will be studied for generations.
And if that’s the case, then historians will likely remember the work of two reporters whose profession continues to be under attack as disloyal and America’s ultimate opposition party.
J.D. Durkin is Cheddar’s White House and Capitol Hill Correspondent in Washington D.C.