“No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up” (with reality), Fran Lebowitz once said, a comment that aptly summarizes the bizarre press conference held following the private, two-hour talk between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Finland. What was bizarre about the summit? For one thing, Putin was actually happy at times and Trump was, too. If Russia had some kind of incriminating video about him, it “would have been out long ago” Trump claimed, all smiles, as if retaining leverage wouldn’t be more helpful to Putin’s cause.
The cat that swallowed the canary was surely the subtext of Putin’s smile when the two men emerged to begin the press conference. Whatever Putin heard in private must have been pleasing, as was the spectacle of being again a super power sharing the world stage with America’s leader.
Donald was Donald. Have you heard that he won the election after a “brilliant” campaign? Or that there wasn’t any collusion (“I didn’t even know” Putin, Trump said, sarcastically smiling). On this day, Putin had the more interesting body language. Yes, he exhibited the usual smirks – like when Trump insisted the goal of meeting was for the “greater good of all.” Putin’s concern about the humanitarian crisis in Syria was certainly touching. His adroit sense of humor in making what Trump characterized as the “incredible offer” of having Russia itself “interrogate” the 12 men Muller indicted on Friday was likewise a masterpiece of obfuscation delivered with only the slightest of ironic smiles.
But even the often tight-lipped ex-KGB officer couldn’t manage not to give away his discomfort when the question became: who did Trump believe regarding alleged Russian interference, the FBI or Putin? Then Russia’s leader pulled back his upper body, rubbed his head, kept his eyes down, and hid his lips with his hand—all in the matter of 25 seconds—in knowing that dishonestly earning trust was the key to the day. Could he get through Trump’s answer that Russia had no plausible motive for interfering in America’s election without betraying fear if caught red-handed or laughter on getting away with it?
Did Putin want Trump to win the election? Ah, there was motive directly inquired about and for a moment Putin was truthful: “Yes” was the answer, accompanied by wrinkles forming in the middle of Putin’s forehead as his eyebrows lifted in a sign of feelings that include apprehension. Otherwise, it was all pretty smooth sailing. “You can trust no one if you believe” these allegations about Russian hacking, Putin informed us, which is indeed true. Trust no one on that stage in Helsinki. Putin is Putin, and meanwhile Trump has cheated on everyone and everything from his customers, vendors and wives to his country, without even the slightest hint of shame.