Guy W. Farmer: What really happened in Helsinki?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in an attempt to explain what President Trump told Russian President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors in Helsinki earlier this month, but Pompeo doesn’t know exactly what was said because there were only four people in the room — Trump, Putin and two interpreters.
That’s worrisome because God only knows what our undisciplined, unprepared president said or promised Putin behind closed doors. Simply put, Trump doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about foreign affairs and ruthless dictators. Nevertheless, he always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room, a “stable genius,” as he has described himself. Ignorant foreign policy dunce might be more like it; take your pick.
The best summary of what happened in Helsinki that I’ve seen was written by Maria Cardona, a reporter for “The Hill,” a credible Washington-based news website. “What the hell happened in Helsinki?” she wrote. “After the spectacular debacle that was President Donald Trump’s Helsinki press conference at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side, Americans and the world are asking themselves this question. Unfortunately, the more Trump and the White House try to walk back the fiasco, the deeper they dig their hole.”
After Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — “his denial was very strong” — over our own intelligence agencies, he issued an inarticulate clarification claiming he said “would” when he meant to say “wouldn’t.” Some clarification! Unsurprisingly, Trump blamed the “fake news” media for confusing his own muddled statement because he never accepts responsibility for anything.
Conservative columnist George Will, who suffers from TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome — let’s be honest here), wrote that Trump “speaks English as though it is a second language he learned from someone who learned English last week,” adding that “America’s child president had a play date with a KGB alumnus, who surely enjoyed providing daycare.” Ouch!
Some members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, want to subpoena Trump’s State Department interpreter to learn what was said behind those closed doors, but that’s a terrible idea. As a former English/Spanish courtroom interpreter who served as an interpreter for classified conversations and discussions at American embassies in Spanish-speaking countries, I can tell you that simultaneous interpreters are focused on the words being said, not what they mean.
It would be unfair to ask an interpreter to summarize policy discussions between Trump and Putin. However, I’m virtually certain that Putin has a transcript of every word that was spoken behind those closed doors in Helsinki, and perhaps we do too. After all, everything is fair in love, war and international diplomacy. Despite the apparent “bromance” between the Russian dictator and Trump, who seems to have a penchant for autocratic rulers, I’m thinking about possible World War III scenarios, a deadly serious topic.
At the same time Trump was declaring that Helsinki was a “big success,” there were questions about what was going on in North Korea, where some experienced observers think another brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un, “played” Trump in one-on-one diplomacy. As I’ve written, Trump seems to leap before he looks when it comes to summits with other world leaders. For example, he prepared for the Helsinki Summit by playing golf and watching Fox News. So I was pleased when some of the more experienced and objective Fox journalists, including Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, expressed doubts about what was really accomplished in Helsinki and earlier, with Kim in Singapore.
We should ask ourselves what comes after the fake smiles and photo ops and worry about our president’s inability to think or speak clearly.
Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal’s senior political columnist.