I’ll admit it: Covering Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign often got the best of me. It was my first election cycle as full-time press, and it often felt like it would be my last. My first face-to-face glimpse of Trump came in July 2015, when he appeared at a libertarian conference here in Las Vegas. He did a Q&A after one of his signature rambling sessions, and one Maria Butina stepped forward to ask about foreign policy. I suddenly had a front-row seat to what may now be the greatest scandal of the Trump White House, and I didn’t even realize it at the time.
But fortunately for us all, I did record it on video.
Why I was there in the first place
Three years ago, my colleagues and I noticed Donald Trump was coming to FreedomFest, an annual libertarian themed conference that happens right here in Las Vegas. Though I didn’t think Republicans would ultimately nominate him, I figured it would be good to see in person the “flavor of the week” who was leading the polls and driving the conversation on various issues (such as immigration and trade) in a way that was driving the Republican Party establishment into despair.
On July 11, 2015, I was prepared to cover Trump’s big day in town through the lens of how Trump’s ideology conflicts with traditional libertarian lines of thought, why people were protesting Trump inside and outside the event, and what Trump’s big moment would ultimately mean for Nevada’s Republican Presidential Caucus the following February. I spoke with a few protesters, then stood and watched Trump as he embarked upon what would become his standard rambling stream of consciousness style “stump speech” (if it can even be classified as such).
Once he paused the rambling session, FreedomFest organizers opened the floor to audience questions. That’s when Maria Butina walked into the line and waited her turn to speak. I then witnessed an illuminating moment in what would become one of the most startling moments in American history, without me even thinking much about it at the time.
“If you become President, what will be your foreign policy, especially when it comes to my country?”
– Maria Butina
When she identified herself as a Russian national visiting America, Butina asked, “If you become President, what will be your foreign policy, especially when it comes to my country?” She also asked, “Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions, which is damaging our economy, or do you have any other ideas?”
Trump responded, “[President Barack] Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us.” He then went on to complain about U.S. relations with Mexico and China, setting up his subsequent attacks on Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
And in answering Butina’s question, Trump did say this about Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin. OK?” He continued, “I don’t believe you would need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very well.”
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin.”
– President Donald Trump
Again, at the time, I didn’t realize what I was witnessing with my own eyes, ears, and cameras. But as Celine Dion once sang, it’s all coming back to me now.
For one, Maria Butina was indicted in federal court earlier today on charges of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent. The FBI accuses her of conspiring with American collaborators to infiltrate U.S. political organizations and establish a back channel to communicate with the Russian government. Butina has made a name for herself in both countries as a “gun rights advocate”, and became active with the NRA here in the U.S. Considering her extensive “gun rights advocacy”, Butina probably wasn’t questioned why she wanted to attend an event like FreedomFest.
And then, there’s the matter of Trump’s last week of “diplomacy” abroad. He proceeded to bash NATO (even more), attack British Prime Minister Theresa May, and even disrespect Queen Elizabeth II, before pivoting to slobbering all over Vladimir Putin at today’s Helsinki Summit. Trump even sided with Putin over the American intelligence community (again) when asked about Russian interference with the 2016 election, just hours after 12 Russian military intelligence agents were charged with interfering in our 2016 election.
Hindsight is always 20/20, yet we could have used better foresight.
On July 11, 2015, Donald Trump essentially signaled to a Las Vegas audience how he’d reshape America’s foreign policy as President. Three years later, we’re seeing it come to fruition. Trump is attacking America’s traditional allies, and he’s praising folks who had acted as foes.
Three years ago, one person who never registered on my radar and probably didn’t seem like a problem to any of the FreedomFest organizers proceeded to ask a question that would have blown her cover had any of us known her true nature. But then again, three years ago most “smart political insiders” weren’t expecting Trump to win the Republican nomination, let alone the Presidency.
Looking back, I missed the warning signs. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in doing so.