President Sauli Niinistö had a ringside seat to a Donald Trump meltdown that played out on live television during a press conference between the two leaders.
For several hours on Wednesday evening the hashtag #TrumpMeltdown was trending on social media.
The day started off well, with Trump giving Niinistö the red carpet arrival treatment at the South Portico of the White House.
“It’s an honour to be with the President of Finland, he’s done a fantastic job, very popular, beloved over in Finland” Trump would later say, praising his visitor.
But at the part of a bilateral meeting that was open to the press, with the leaders seated in high-back yellow chairs, President Niinistö had to swat President Trump’s hand away as he patted his knee.
A working lunch came next, but it was during a set piece press conference that the wheels really came off the American presidential wagon.
Trump read from a prepared speech, raking over tried and tested ground about warm bilateral relations, and solid trade and investment – much to the delight no doubt of Finnish diplomats. He managed to get in a complaint that the EU hadn’t been treating America right for many years, but saved the full-blown spectacle for the question and answer session with reporters at the end.
When it started, all President Niinistö could do was stand quietly and watch.
Asked about impeachment inquiries, Trump called it “the greatest hoax” and “a fraudulent crime on the American people.”
He said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who has spearheaded the new impeachment investigation against Trump, had “a mental breakdown” and misrepresented his phone call with the President of Ukraine which is at the centre of impeachment proceedings.
“He should resign, and some people even say it was treason” Trump said of Schiff.
Trump used the press conference to attack his treatment over investigations which were launched by his political opponents, and lasted for months.
“The Mueller deal was a scam. The Russian collusion was a scam. You can ask Putin, nobody has been rougher on Russia than Donald Trump” the President said, and said [former Vice President Joe] “Biden and his son are stone cold crooked.”
Trump said he would probably file “a major lawsuit” in connection with what he called a “corrupt investigation” into whether his campaign colluded with Russia prior to the 2016 US Presidential election.
“Believe it or not I watch my words very carefully” said Trump, who is notorious for doing exactly the opposite. “There are those who think I’m a very stable genius, okay?” he said.
Sparring with the “corrupt media”
Twice during the press conference Trump demanded that reporters ask President Niinistö questions, when they wanted to focus on American domestic political issues instead.
He said “the fake news media that we have in this country” was buying into the “hoax” of impeachable actions. “I say in many cases the corrupt meda, because you’re corrupt. Much of the media in this country is not just fake it’s corrupt.”
“If the press were straight and honest and forthright and tough we would be a far greater nations, we would be far greater if we didn’t have the CNNs of this world” – Trump pointed to reporters in the audience – “who are corrupt people” he added for good measure.
Questions that Niinistö left unanswered
President Niinistö has his own reputation with the press, for giving answers that seem full, yet somehow manage to avoid replying directly to the question.
“What kind of favours has Mr Trump asked from you?” MTV’s Mari Karppinen asked, riffing on the growing number of foreign leaders it is emerging and alleged that Trump asked to help him look into various issues. Niinistö didn’t answer her question.
An American reporter asked President Niinistö whether his opening remarks, where he said that America had a great democracy “keep it going” meant that he was concerned about the situation.
Niinistö said he was impressed at what the American people had gained, but again didn’t give a direct reply to the question.
It was a classic Trump performance. But also, in many ways, a classic understated Niinistö performance as well.