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George W. Bush now says there was an implicit qualifier to his warm endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trustworthiness.
In an Oval Office interview with Ronald Reagan’s former speech writer Peggy Noonan, Bush sought to wipe away the impression that he had been duped by Putin, a career KGB officer who has directed a brutal crackdown in the rebellious province of Chechnya, a conflict that some human rights observers say has degenerated into a “dirty war.”
Bush’s new conditional assessment of Putin’s character goes like this: “To me, my attitude is, and this is Reaganesque in a sense, ‘Yes, I trust him, until he proves otherwise.’ But why say the ‘proves otherwise’? To me, that goes without saying.”
In this modified assessment published on the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, Bush also asserts that he was cornered into giving a yes-or-no answer about whether he trusted Putin.
“If you’re trying to redefine a relationship and somebody asks you, ‘Can you trust the guy?’ imagine what it’d have been like if I’d have stood up in front of the world and said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ Or, ‘You know, perhaps.’ Or, ‘it’s yet to be proven.’” Bush then went on in the interview to give his “until he proves otherwise” formulation.
There were, of course, other possible responses in a diplomatic setting. Bush could have responded by stressing the hope that the United States and Russia could continue building a relationship that replaces hostility with trust. He could have said the two-hour conversation with Putin was a good first step.
But at the post-summit news conference in Slovenia, Bush went well beyond saying simply that, yes, he trusted Putin and then leaving unspoken the thought that the endorsement of the longtime communist apparatchik was really just probationary. Bush gushed on, insisting that he had been able to look into Putin’s soul and concluded that this was an honest man.
“I looked the man in the eye,” Bush said at the news conference on June 16. “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Back in Washington, however, Bush now tells a friendly interviewer that that fawning assessment wasn’t exactly true. There was an unspoken caveat, a conditional phrase that suggests that Bush didn’t really mean what he said in Slovenia.
Or there's another possibility -- that Bush’s interview with Noonan was damage control, as Bush tries to undercut the widespread view that his remark about Putin’s soul was proof that Bush is woefully unprepared for the responsibilities of being president.
Whatever the sincerity of Bush's remarks about Putin's trustworthiness, one of Bush’s comments to Noonan – about the national press corps – seems to have been frank, though arguably self-aggrandizing for Bush and insulting to Putin.
In the interview, Bush recalled that Putin seemed nervous about going to the post-summit press conference. By contrast, Bush was Mr. Cool.
“For me, I was used to it, but … here’s a guy who walks out, and now he’s in the – this is the big leagues, this is the brightest klieg light of all. And it was a big press conference, there were a lot of people, and he didn’t know what to expect. I knew what to expect. I knew there were going to be essentially softball questions by those reporters.” [WSJ, June 25, 2001]
So, Bush confides to Noonan that he was confident that he would find the press corps in its usual on-bended-knee position.
Still, while swatting “essentially softball questions,” a confident Bush managed to whiff on a simple question about whether Putin should be trusted. Bush missed so badly that now he has modified his comments to insist that Putin is really on probation as to his trustworthiness.
Yet, what Bush has done now is to assure that any offense that he feared giving in Slovenia – about publicly doubting Putin’s trustworthiness – was conveyed in an article in the Wall Street Journal, which presumably will be read in Moscow.
Bush also comes across as an Eddie Haskell character, fawning over Putin to his face while whispering doubts about his character when he’s gone.
By handling the issue this way, Bush has managed to raise doubts about the trustworthiness of both participants at the Slovenia summit.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.