WASHINGTON (Circa) — The White House views President Donald Trump’s newly-announced summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin as an opportunity to advance mutual interests on many fronts, but critics foresee an effort to underplay Russia’s attacks on democracy and undermine traditional international alliances.
“The two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues,” the White House said of the July 16 meeting in Helsinki, Finland.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Trump told a pool reporter during a tour of a Foxconn warehouse in Wisconsin. “If we could all get along, it would be great. The world has to start getting along.”
Shortly before the summit details were confirmed Thursday morning, the president unleashed his latest defense of Putin against the conclusions of the FBI, CIA, and NSA that the Russian government was responsible for interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Trump tweeted. “Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!”
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
In January 2017, just before Trump took office, the intelligence agencies released a public report accusing Russia of engaging in hacking and propaganda efforts directed by Putin. The CIA and FBI concluded with high confidence that the intent behind those measures was to help Trump, but the NSA only had moderate confidence in that finding.
National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Moscow Wednesday meeting with Putin and his aides about a possible summit. Putin confirmed to reporters an agreement was reached about the meeting, but details were not released at the time.
“Even in earlier days, when our countries had differences and our leaders and their advisers met and I think that was good for both countries, good for stability in the world. President Trump feels very strongly on that subject,” Bolton said.
The summit will mark Trump’s third face-to-face meeting with Putin, though the Russian leader recently said they speak by phone “regularly.” U.S. officials have been circumspect about exactly what will be on the agenda in Helsinki, but the U.S. needs Putin’s cooperation to address crises in Eastern Europe, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
"Both President Trump and President Putin feel that it's important for these two leaders of these two critically important countries to get together and discuss their mutual problems and areas of cooperation,” Bolton told reporters at a press conference in Moscow Wednesday. “It's something that I think both feel will contribute to improvements in the US-Russia bilateral relationship and in stability around the world."
Trump entered the White House promising to improve relations with Russia, as presidents have since the end of the Cold War. While Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush eventually soured on Putin, Trump continues to argue working together with Russia would be in the best interest of the U.S. and the world.
“I think the president unfortunately is looking to reset relations without holding Russia to account for its past actions and current actions to undermine U.S. interests,” said Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center who previously dealt with Russia and NATO issues at the Department of Defense.
Trump has bristled in the past at pressure to confront Putin over Russia’s election meddling, and his tweet Thursday left critics with little confidence that he will attempt to hold Putin accountable this time, despite recent claims by his top officials.
“I’m confident that when the president meets with Vladimir Putin he will make clear that meddling in our elections is completely unacceptable,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a Senate hearing Wednesday, a sentiment seemingly rebutted by Trump the following morning.
“There’s no credible evidence in the analysis which suggests Russia did not do that interference…,” said William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and former ambassador. “It’s puzzling why the president continues to take the position of skepticism.”
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
According to Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, the election interference question and Trump’s apparent resistance to reckoning with it casts “a continuing cloud” over everything he does with regard to Russia.
“That has to be a front-and-center topic of the summit, though I suspect there is enormous reluctance on the part of President Trump to raise it at all,” he said.
Foreign officials reportedly dread a replay of Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea earlier this month, which led to Trump lavishly praising and defending the dictator for signing a vague statement of intent to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
“We need to take his performance in Singapore as a case study in how he engages with dictators as he tries to make big deals on big strategic issues,” Simakovsky said.
Considering events in Singapore and Trump’s positivity toward Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, experts see a pattern emerging in the president’s interactions with democratic allies and authoritarian strongmen that may be reinforced in Helsinki.
“The background political optics are a little strange because Trump seems to be doing better with authoritarian leaders than he is with traditional allies,” Cavanaugh said.
PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, “US Tariffs were kind of insulting” and he “will not be pushed around.” Very dishonest & weak. Our Tariffs are in response to his of 270% on dairy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2018
The June 12 Kim summit capped off a trip that began with a contentious G7 gathering in Canada. Trump arrived late, left early, refused to sign a joint statement, and lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for days afterward for challenging his trade policies.
The Helsinki meeting will come days after Trump is scheduled to attend a two-day summit of NATO leaders in Brussels, creating another opportunity for diplomatic disarray. Trump has long criticized NATO allies for what he feels is insufficient defense spending, and he publicly rebuked them over it when they met last year. He will likely face pushback over his tariffs there, as well.
“The fear, I know, on the part of Europeans is that the signals from the G7 meeting suggest the NATO meeting may go equally bad,” Cavanaugh said.
The outcome of the NATO summit may set the tone for the Putin meeting, something Courtney hopes the White House recognized when it set this schedule.
“Having a Putin summit after the NATO summit is important because if the NATO summit goes well, it will strengthen Trump’s hand in negotiations with Putin… but if the NATO summit does end up being fractious, that will weaken Trump’s hand with Putin,” he said.
After meeting with Kim, Trump announced the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, reportedly without discussing it with allies first. NATO partners worry he will hand out similar unplanned concessions in Helsinki.
“One of things worth looking at was President Trump was willing to put a freeze on U.S. military exercises with South Korea as a concession in negotiations. I think we may see some surprises in Helsinki and one of those is Putin could ask President Trump to halt military exercises in Eastern Europe,” Simakovsky said.
Despite those concerns, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is encouraging Trump’s meeting with Putin.
“It’s absolutely, totally in line with NATO policies to talk to Russia, to meet with Russian leaders,” he told reporters in Brussels Thursday. “We don’t want a new Cold War. We don’t want to isolate Russia. We want to strive for a better relationship.”
As with the Kim summit, some say Trump accepting the meeting at all amounts to a victory for Putin.
“Even though Putin interferes in U.S. electoral process, sure, we’re still willing to meet him,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a case to be made, we should always be having a dialogue… The question becomes, should that dialogue be at the presidential level.”
Simakovsky observed that some of the actions NATO leaders will be discussing in Brussels are deterrence and readiness measures against Russian aggression, and he worries Trump may slow-walk approval if he is focused on having a positive discussion with Putin.
“I agree President Trump has a right and a need to meet with President Putin at the right time,” he said. “I don’t believe the right time is a snap meeting with little preparation right after a NATO summit.”
The Trump administration has forged a complicated relationship with Putin’s Russia. The president has rarely criticized Putin publicly, questioning his own intelligence agencies’ findings regarding election interference and defending the annexation of Crimea as being Obama’s fault.
At the same time Trump enthusiastically backed readmitting Russia into the G7 earlier this month, he asserted he has been Putin’s “worst nightmare.” The Trump administration has made harsh policy moves against the Kremlin, but some question his frequent claims that he has been tougher than his predecessors.
“It’s been a mixed picture,” Cavanaugh said. “The president has supported some of these harder things but ignored or tried to not implement others… He hasn’t been willing to acknowledge the interference in the election, and I think that’s because he feels it questions in some sense the legitimacy of his own election.”
The selection of Helsinki as the summit site carries clear historical resonance. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed off on a multilateral agreement in Helsinki intended to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the West. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush met Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the Finnish capital for one of a series of summits between the two leaders on foreign policy issues.
According to Courtney, Trump’s Singapore meeting with Kim was much more about atmospherics than policy, producing only a brief statement of agreement. With Putin, optics will still be important, but Trump may be able to find more significant common ground.
“I would expect the outcome of this to be a bit more concrete than the Kim summit,” he said.