The news conference that followed President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki led to jaw-dropping reactions across the globe, including from LGBT advocates and observers who say it had a negative impact on LGBT rights despite Trump’s backpedaling days later.
Trump on Monday appeared alongside Putin at a news conference and sided with the Russian leader over the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, which led to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russians who implemented the plan.
“My people came to me — Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Trump also referenced conspiracy theories about servers for the Democratic National Committee and 33,000 emails Hillary Clinton refused to make public during the election. Additionally, Trump embraced a Russian proposal for an internal investigation of the 12 Russians as opposed to calling for their extradition to the United States.
“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.”
Trump’s words gave credence to the notion Putin has compromising material on Trump that’s keeping the U.S. president under Russia’s control. When asked about it during the news conference, Putin cast doubt over the idea, but didn’t outright deny it.
“When President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow,” Putin said. “I treat President Trump with utmost respect. But back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.”
Putin added it’s “difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this” and “please just disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”
The comments during the news conference overshadowed the fact the meeting yielded nothing in terms of international policy, such as an agreement on nuclear arms reduction or Russian withdrawal from Crimea.
The firestorm that erupted after the news conference wasn’t confined to Democrats and Trump’s opponents, but others who generally support him, including Fox News commentators and Newt Gingrich, who said Trump committed “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
LGBT advocates added to those concerns, saying the apparent deference to Putin undermined U.S. standing in advocating for LGBT human rights, especially in Russia which has a troubling record of anti-LGBT hostility.
Recently, in the Russian semi-autonomous region of Chechnya, reports have emerged that local authorities have rounded up and even executed gay men in concentration camps.
On the eve of the conference, the Human Rights Campaign arranged for a light projection on the presidential palace in Helsinki calling on Trump and Putin to “stop the crimes against humanity in Chechnya.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a statement last year calling the reports of Chechnya abuses “troubling” and the Treasury Department sanctioned Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov late last year under the Magnitsky Act after the abuses were made public.
However, Trump himself has yet to comment on them unlike other world leaders like Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said Trump added to the debacle at Helsinki by not addressing anti-gay abuses in Chechnya.
“Instead of standing up to Putin, Trump groveled before him in a shameful and unprecedented display of deference to a man who is intent on harming his own LGBTQ citizens and the United States,” Stacy said. “We will continue to work with Members of Congress, from both parties, to raise these concerns with the Russian government, in the media, and in multilateral forums. On Election Day, the American people must hold Donald Trump accountable and any elected official who continues to enable his destructive incompetence.”
Days after the news conference in Helsinki upon returning to the United States, Trump sang a different tune in a gaggle with reporters, walking back his comments and insisting he has “full faith in our intelligence agencies.”
“I accept our intelligence community conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said.
Trump also said he misspoke when he said during the news conference he doesn’t see any reason why Russia would be responsible for the interference.
“The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,” Trump said. “Sort of a double negative.”
But Trump’s reversal wasn’t enough for many observers who remain indignant over his performance in Helsinki.
Michael Guest, who’s gay and a former U.S. ambassador to Romania, said Congress should step up efforts in the aftermath of the Trump-Putin meeting.
“President Trump’s public comments and actions give no reason to believe that he cares about human rights, or that he pressed Putin to bring justice to those responsible for the atrocities carried out against LGBT people in Chechnya,” Guest said. “This was possibly the most appalling international performance, ever, by a U.S. president. It’s time for Congress to ratchet up its oversight of this bilateral relationship, America’s silence on human rights and the negative impact this president is having on our country’s standing in the world.”
Daniel Baer, who’s gay and the former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe, said: “Russia’s terrible record on hunan rights has long been on the agenda for meetings between leaders and senior officials. Many of us hoped against all odds that Trump might raise the ongoing violent attacks on LGBTQ people in Chechnya and the broader state-sponsored homophobia of the Putin regime, or the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov who is on a hunger strike as a political prisoner in Russia. Instead, Trump sold out America, our allies and the cause of human rights.”
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.