A tale of two summits: Trump at Helsinki, and Biden at Geneva.

In Helsinki in 2018, Trump dismissed the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian election meddling. Biden struck a less deferential tone.


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A tale of two summits: Trump at Helsinki, and Biden at Geneva.

Mr. Putin offering Mr. Trump a present at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

June 16, 2021, 7:07 a.m. ET

President Biden, fresh from meeting Vladimir V. Putin, seemed at pains from the very start of a news conference Wednesday to make one thing clear: Geneva 2021 was no Helsinki 2018.

Helsinki, Finland, was where President Donald J. Trump had his own first face-to-face meeting with the Russian president, and the moment was highly anticipated, given the investigations then taking place into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its reported ties to Mr. Trump’s campaign.

The meeting offered the American president a ripe opportunity to denounce the Kremlin on a public stage. He did not.

Instead, standing by Mr. Putin’s side, Mr. Trump dismissed the conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian meddling and said, in essence, that he believed the Russian president’s denials as much as he believed his own intelligence advisers.

“They said they think it’s Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.” For good measure, he said, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Even some of Mr. Trump’s own supporters were aghast.

“It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden appeared eager to strike a different tone.

“Where we have differences,” he said just moments into the news conference, “I wanted President Putin to understand why I say what I say, and why I do what I do, and how we’ll respond to specific kinds of actions that harm America’s interests.”

Mr. Biden said, “I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else. It’s for the American people.”

And he declared: “I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That’s just part of the DNA of our country.”

To that end, he cited the jailing of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, and the detentions of two Americans in Russia.

Mr. Biden also offered a warning on cyberattacks.

“I pointed out to him: We have significant cyber-capabilities — and he knows it,” the president said.

There were echoes of Helsinki and Mr. Trump’s professions of trust in Mr. Putin in an exchange between Mr. Biden and a reporter.

“Now that you’ve talked to him,” Mr. Biden was asked, “do you believe you can trust him?”

“Look,” the president replied, “this is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”

It is too soon to know how Mr. Biden’s summit will be received by the general public.

For Mr. Trump, the chummy public appearance with Mr. Putin in Helsinki was seen as damaging. (The same was true a year later, when the two men had an equally amiable meeting in Osaka, Japan, and Mr. Trump offered Mr. Putin a jocular warning at a news conference: “Don’t meddle in the election, President.”)

If Mr. Trump regrets it, there was no sign of it this week as the Geneva summit approached.

In a statement issued as Mr. Biden headed to Europe, Mr. Trump called his meeting with Mr. Putin “great and very productive,” and he defended supporting the Russian president over U.S. officials.

“As to who do I trust, they asked, Russia or our ‘Intelligence’ from the Obama era,” he said, then added: “The answer, after all that has been found out and written, should be obvious. Our government has rarely had such lowlifes as these working for it.”





A Look Back at Trump’s 2019 Meeting With Putin

Mr. Trump meeting with Putin in June 2019.

“You don’t have a problem with Russia, we have — you don’t have a problem. Thank you very much, everybody, it’s a great honor to be with President Putin, his representative, my representative. We have many things to discuss, including trade and including some disarmament and some little protectionism, perhaps, in a very positive way. And we’re going to discuss a lot of different things. We’ve had great meetings we have a very, very good relationship.” Reporter: “Mr. President, will you tell Russia not to meddle in the 2020 election?” [reporters shouting questions] Reporter: “What about the Ukrainian –” “Don’t, don’t meddle in the election.”

Mr. Trump meeting with Putin in June 2019.

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