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Standing next to Vladimir Putin at a news conference on Monday in Helsinki, President Donald Trump offered a surprising analysis of his own government’s allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections: he’s not sure he believes it.

Trump has said as much before. But three days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents by name, detailing their involvement in a scheme to hack into email accounts controlled by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Trump indicated that he gives at least equal weight to the views of his closest intelligence aide, Dan Coats, and to Putin.

The Russian leader meanwhile proclaimed that yes, he wanted Donald Trump to win the 2016 election – but no, Moscow didn’t try to effect the outcome. Putin also dodged a question about whether the Kremlin possesses compromising information on Trump, a recurring assertion by the U.S. president’s critics.

He had heard the rumors, Putin said with a smile. But many businessmen visit Russia, he said.

“Do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them?” Putin said, without answering the rhetorical question. “Well, it’s difficult to imagine on a bigger scale of this. Please disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”

Public Relations Victory

The sum was Trump – at best caught up in personal grievances, and at worst contributing to speculation about a grander conspiracy – delivering a performance that clearly pleased the Russian president. Putin has long sought to both reestablish Russian influence on the global stage and undermine confidence in Western institutions, and within the span of one news conference, the U.S. president gave him a lot to work with.

The president disparaged Mueller’s investigation as a “disaster.”

He suggested that because the Democratic National Committee had only turned over data from its servers to the FBI and not the machines themselves, there were doubts about the provenance of the hacking.

Disparate Reaction

The significance of Trump’s performance was obvious in the opposite reaction it garnered in the Russian and American capitals.

In Washington, lawmakers from both sides of the aisles were aghast. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Trump turned in “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

“This was the day an American president stood on foreign soil next to a murderous lying thug and refused to back his own country,” former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired, said in a tweet. “Patriots need to stand up and reject the behavior of this president.”

In an interview with CBS News taped before the summit but released afterward, Trump additionally said that he didn’t know if he agreed with Coats’s warning that America’s digital infrastructure was at a breaking point.

Delight in Moscow

The cheering in Moscow, by contrast, could nearly be heard from Finland.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the summit was “magnificent, better than super,” according to the Interfax news service. Alexander Dynkin, head of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, which advises the Kremlin, said the summit was “a big step towards a new normality in Russia-U.S. relations.”

Putin ally and the head of the Russian state sovereign fund Kirill Dmitriev said the summit "exceeded expectations to establish a positive and constructive dialogue between our two countries."

“As demonstrated by Russian direct investment fund’s accomplishments, the Summit’s proposed initiatives for co-operation through business are highly effective," he told Bloomberg via press service.

Adversary v. Allies

Further amplifying the Russian advantage was the fact that the meeting itself was a victory for Putin, puncturing the isolation imposed by other Western powers after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s persistent support for Syrian leader Bashar al Assad in his country’s bloody civil war.

Trump flattered the Russian leader from the opening moments of the summit, calling the U.S. and Russia the world’s major nuclear powers. Sitting in the presidential palace in Helsinki as American and Soviet leaders had during the Cold War, the entire affair had the effect of elevating a Russian leader who presides over a country struggling to maintain its economic and diplomatic relevancy.

That Trump’s performance came on the heels of a tour of Europe in which he ratcheted up tensions with American allies only magnified the impact of his outstretched hand.

Trump Strategy?

White House aides say there’s a strategy at play. The president believes hardball tactics work best with friends while a more amicable approach is better with adversaries. By kindling a relationship with Putin, they argue, the U.S. is better prepared to tackle complex and difficult global challenges, from a chaotic Middle East to nuclear proliferation.

“Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world,” Trump said. “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”

Trump also appears out of step with even his closest advisers. Just a day before the summit, national security adviser John Bolton told ABC News he’d “find it hard to believe” Putin himself was not aware of the attack on Democratic computer systems.

The president’s argument is further complicated by the fact that he and Putin announced no progress on any matter where cooperation may have been possible. There was no agreement on the crisis in Syria, Russian incursions in Ukraine or the annexation of Crimea.

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