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Masha Gessen: How Putin and Trump Each Lied in Helsinki

At their joint press conference, the two Presidents used different styles of obfuscation. Trump’s denials and deflections sound hysterical; Putin creates a sense of boring and hopeless unreality.

The two Presidents have some things in common. Both love power, but neither is interested in government. Both fear challenges to their legitimacy and resent being asked to account for their statements and actions. Both habitually lie to assert power and obfuscate when questioned. But, as their joint press conference in Helsinki demonstrated, their styles are different. Both react to questions aggressively, but, while Donald Trump deflects and demands, Vladimir Putin attacks and threatens.

The difference can be observed most clearly in the ways that Trump and Putin handled what was essentially the same question: Whom do you believe? (Oh, the irony—and the futility—of asking habitual liars where they choose to put their trust!) Trump launched into a rant: “You have groups that are wondering why the F.B.I. never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the F.B.I. told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?” Trump both projects and creates confusion: we don’t know what server he means, or what incident he is referring to, and we get the sense that he doesn’t, either. Indeed, as his free-associative rant continued, the main complaint that emerged was a lack of information—presumably contained in Hillary Clinton’s missing e-mails.

Putin, in response to an earlier question, was more blunt: “As to the question of who can or can’t be believed and whether anyone can be believed: no one can be believed. Where did you get the idea that President Trump trusts me or that I trust him fully? He protects the interests of the United States of America. I protect the interests of the Russian Federation.” (The translation, from the Russian original, is mine.) In other words, Putin was saying, both of us will lie strategically. There is no such thing as the truth. Knowability is a delusion.

Having established that everything he says may be a lie, Putin went on to deny Russian interference in the American election campaign. Like Trump, he was creating a sense of unreality, but, unlike Trump, he had announced his intentions plainly from the beginning.

Putin also said, apropos, apparently, of nothing and everything, “I have worked in intelligence, and I know how these kinds of dossiers are put together.” This was another line aimed at establishing that nothing can be believed—including, apparently, the work that Putin did when he was a spy. Only Putin would know what was true then or now—provided, of course, that he can trust himself.

Then Putin seemed to make an extraordinary admission: that he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. Was he copping to something he had long denied? Not at all. He was doing what he has done in the past, most notably when he acknowledged the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine after more than a year of denials. Putin was establishing that nothing is true except his ability to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants to.

He can, for example, claim that the American-British businessman Bill Browder, the mastermind of a set of anti-Russian sanctions, contributed four hundred million dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This was a howler on par with Trump’s claims about the size of his Inauguration crowd and millions of illegal-immigrant voters, but, unlike Trump, Putin delivers his lies in a dull, bureaucratic tone. Trump’s denials and deflections sound hysterical; Putin creates a sense of boring and hopeless unreality. This serves to make Putin sound oddly competent, and to make him look far more confident and authoritative than Trump.

Taking their cue from Putin, the Russian media adopted a dry, bureaucratic language while reporting on the summit, trumpeting Putin’s victory in viscous phrases reminiscent of Soviet news reports. That in itself communicates that Putin has delivered what he has long promised, by restoring Russia to its old superpower grandeur—and making the American President his accomplice in broadcasting a cynical, hopeless, and intentionally false story.

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