Donald Trump’s unexpected critic
One morning, exactly four years ago, I walked through Melbourne’s central business district towards the Yarra River. Beside the water was the city’s giant convention centre, then hosting the 20th global AIDS conference, which I had been sent to cover. The weather was crisp, but the wind calm. At least at that moment. I know this because my notebook from that day records the limpness of parliament’s flags, then raised to half-mast. All flags were.
Three days before, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was destroyed over south-eastern Ukraine. At an altitude of 31,000 feet, and cruising with presumable safety above Russia’s violent seizure of Crimea, the plane was shredded by a Buk TELAR – a Russian-made, Russian-deployed ground-to-air missile. It was designed not to strike its target directly, but explode near it – strafing the plane with high-velocity shrapnel. All 298 onboard died. Thirty-eight were Australians. Six passengers were delegates for Melbourne’s AIDS conference.
Beside the Yarra, the mood was depressed and painfully strange. A global conference gathered to mitigate death had been mugged by news of their colleagues’ random murder. For a few days, before the passenger list was made public, Australian and international media reported the deaths of more than 100 conference delegates. People wondered if the cure for AIDS had been on that plane.
Independently, a few delegates told me of the death of Jonathan Mann – a physician and prominent AIDS activist, who had died in the 1998 Swissair plane crash. They couldn’t quite believe the macabre coincidence. They were numb, they told me.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Bill Clinton, then assumed by his political party as the presumptive first First Man. He opened his address by recognising the dead. He acknowledged Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, then on the floor of the United Nations condemning “grotesque violations” of the site, and moving a resolution for an independent investigation.
A few days later I spoke with a former police forensics investigator. He’d worked the scene of the Bali bombing in 2002, and was in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. He’d been contacted by the family of one of the passengers. They wanted advice. Assurance. Something. A loved one had been violently, inexplicably stolen from them – and now both the repatriation of their body and the investigation of the crime scene was being thwarted by the perpetrator of this crime.
Also on that plane were three Perth children, Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin. They were returning home from a European holiday with their grandfather, Nick Norris. “When their innocent bodies were shot out of the sky, I stretched my arms as high as I could and screamed for them,” their mother, Rin Norris, said at their funeral service. “Now I see them only in my head. I can’t touch them. I can’t feel their warmth ... My arms will always be reaching for them.”
One of the most exciting and least scandalous FIFA World Cups was held by a murderous kleptocracy whose hosting rights were most likely bestowed corruptly. While the world was enjoying a tournament of unusual openness, its host was jailing dissenters and killing a British woman 3000 kilometres away through accidental exposure to its chemical weapons.
Russian reality only briefly intruded on the World Cup, when, during the final, four members of protest group Pussy Riot breached the field dressed as police officers. At time of writing, they remain in prison. Otherwise, the tournament existed as a sweetly detached phenomenon – the biggest talking point being the prodigious skills of French teenager Kylian Mbappé.
But not for the families of MH17 victims. Before the cup began, they published an open letter to the Russian people: “In June the world will turn its eyes toward Russia for the football World Cup. It will be a long-awaited and joyous event. For most Russians it will also be an occasion of deep national pride.
“Some of us who write these words are passionate followers of football, others are not. But none of us will be able to share in this World Cup in the way we would have done before. We have something in common that gives this event, and the place in which it is held, a different, darker meaning … We, as families of those killed on MH17, are still breathing, but the lives we had also came to a close that day. We are not the same people we were before. The world we live in is darker and less hopeful. We have struggled to maintain faith in human goodness. It may be that some of us will find some sense of purpose and happiness again. But we will always be marked by the brutal and sudden death of those we love ...
“We appeal again for the Russian government to cooperate fully with the international investigation into MH17. It will not bring our families back but the truth does matter, the truth does exist and we want those responsible for MH17 to be identified and held accountable.”
Liberal MP Craig Kelly seemed to think otherwise, this week saying: “So what is best for the continued future of the world – and it is best in my opinion that the leader of the USA and the leader of Russia at least have a good talking relationship,” he said. “And if that means some of the things that Russia has gotten away with in the past has to be slightly looked over, well, I am sorry. That is the price we have to pay, sometimes, to have good relations going forward.”
He soon offered a qualified apology; then, later, a more complete one.
Just days after the cup final, Russian president Vladimir Putin flew to Helsinki to meet United States president Donald Trump. After a two-hour private conversation, the two men fronted the press in Finland’s presidential palace. For a norm-shattering presidency, one that bewilders with its energetic chaos, this press conference still managed to distinguish itself. No one there had seen anything like it. No one there had heard of anything like it. Reporters were shocked. Trump’s press conference was, simply, historically transgressive. “It will be remembered as the most appalling public display of capitulation by a US president to a Kremlin leader ever,” former Obama ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote this week.
Having recently trashed NATO and the British prime minister, Theresa May, Trump now stood feet from Putin and effusively praised him. Despite the voluminous evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the US president told the world that Putin was persuasive in his denials – effectively slapping the face of his own intelligence agencies. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said. “And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Those 12 people were Russian intelligence officers, indicted only days earlier by the US Justice Department for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers.
There was no assertive acknowledgement of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, annexation, Novichok, electoral sabotage, or MH17 – the fourth anniversary of which fell the next day. Instead, Trump offered, with alarming inarticulacy, his greatest hits: the heroic size of his election victory, Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Robert Mueller witch-hunt, the admirable strength of Putin. Trump had “abased himself … abjectly before a tyrant,” wrote Senator John McCain. “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
Former CIA director John Brennan tweeted: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanours.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”
Former defense secretary Ash Carter wrote: “In my almost four decades with national defense starting in the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan, I never saw or imagined so uneven a handover of American security interests and principles with nothing in return at a meeting. It was like watching the destruction of a cathedral.”
None of these men are doves or liberals. But perhaps each of them isn’t sufficiently smart to apprehend the subtlety of Trump’s performance. At least Trump thinks so. “So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” he wrote on Twitter.
Returning home, Trump was met with uniform disgust and incredulity. Even Fox News – parts of it, at least – expressed criticism. It inspired a rare, if bizarre and superficial, retreat from the president. “I thought it would be obvious – but I would like to clarify, just in case it wasn’t,” Trump said this week. “In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t – or why it wouldn’t be Russia ... Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
The Helsinki performance revived speculation about whether the Russians have something badly damaging on Trump. Applying Occam’s razor, many believe it’s more a matter of Trump’s ego: to publicly concede that Russia interfered in the election is to concede his victory might be owed to things other than his personal magnetism and strategic brilliance.
Trump’s bewildering, depressing, norm-shattering presidency strains credulity. It can become difficult to write about – superlatives offer diminishing returns. But the best thing I read on Helsinki this week cut me to the bone. It was an open letter to Trump, written by Anthony Maslin – the Australian father of Mo, Evie and Otis, who died when MH17 was shot down.
“Mr Trump, you invented and speak a lot about ‘fake news’,” Maslin wrote on the fourth anniversary of the crash this week. “But let’s try talking about something that’s not fake … let’s call them irrefutable facts. That passenger flight MH17 was shot out of the sky and 298 innocent people were murdered is an irrefutable fact. That the plane was hit by a Russian missile has been proven to be an irrefutable fact. That this killed our 3 beautiful children and their grandfather, and destroyed our life and many other lives in the process, is an irrefutable fact. That this happened 4 years ago today … is an irrefutable fact. That the man whose arse you’ve just been kissing did this, and continues to lie about it, is an irrefutable fact.”
Maslin and his wife had stayed in Amsterdam when their children and their grandfather boarded MH17. Afterwards, meaning dissolved. He and his wife spent years fighting nihilism. “I was consumed by grief and knew I needed to find meaning,” he told The West Australian earlier this year. “So I started on a search to find some reason for being.”
The couple had a child – Violet – in 2016. A few months ago, Maslin launched Wide Open Agriculture on the ASX, a company devoted to the ethically minded production of fruit and vegetables. He said his son Otis, in particular, was a lover of nature.
“So you don’t need to look it up, irrefutable means impossible to deny or disprove,” Maslin continued in his letter to Trump, perhaps the most clarifying criticism of this week’s press conference. “It’s not anger that I feel towards the two of you, it’s something much, much worse. It’s pity. You have no empathy for your fellow man, and you clearly have no idea what love is. So you have nothing.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Donald Trump’s unexpected critic". Subscribe here.