Trump, Putin, & the Non-Summit Meeting By Nathan Richmond
On the heels of his contentious NATO summit meeting in Brussels and his brief excursion to the UK, President Trump met President Putin in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. The meeting and subsequent joint press conference were extraordinary and unprecedented.
President Trump and President Putin have talked before, briefly. But according to US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, “In fact, it's the first meeting between the two presidents ... They've had some pull-asides, one at the G-20 in Hamburg and the other at the APEC Ministerial in Da Nang, Vietnam, but this is really the first time for both presidents to actually sit across the table and have a conversation.” Huntsman went on to state that it would be a meeting and a conversation, but not a summit.
It is not uncommon for American presidents to meet with Russian leaders. Presidents Obama and (George W.) Bush also met with Putin, and before them Presidents Clinton and President (George H. W.) Bush met with both Russian President Yeltsin and before him, Soviet President Gorbachev. President Reagan had numerous meetings with Gorbachev. The tradition even extends back to President Fanklin Roosevelt, and then President Truman, who met with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during WWII.
What was extraordinary about Trump's meeting with Putin is that against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Trump chose to meet with Putin with no aides, no advisers, and no one else in the room except a translator. Thus no one, except the presidents and the translator, knew what was said and, more importantly, what was agreed to, if anything.
Post meeting news stories have circulated that President Trump ignored 100+ pages of briefing materials. And further reporting indicated that he ignored the consensus of his advisers to confront Putin on a range of issues including US election interference, Ukraine, Syria, the downing of MH-17, Russian poisonings in the UK, and the murder of journalists in Russia.
Following their meeting, a joint news conference was held that was unprecedented because President Trump did not defend American interests. When asked about confronting Putin over Russian interference in our election, Trump said he did not see any reason why Russia would do so, even after Putin stated that they preferred Trump to win, and, moreover, President Trump said that he believed Putin's strong denials of responsibility.
President Trump's comments were not only an affront to the US intelligence community who unanimously concluded that Russia did so, but they flatly contradicted findings of the Mueller investigation grand jury that indicted 12 Russians for hacking our election announced by the US Justice Dept three days before Trump met Putin. The indictment details Russia's methods used to attack our electoral system.
An Incredible Offer
During the course of the news conference, President Putin offered to cooperate with the Mueller investigation by providing access to those Russians indicted--but only in exchange for the US providing Russia with access to those they want: Bill Browder, mentioned specifically by Putin at the Monday press conference, and by Wednesday, it was noted that Putin also wanted access to former US Ambassador to Russia under President Obama, Michael McFaul. Amazingly, President Trump did not reject the offer immediately, and indicated that the US would, in fact, consider this "incredible offer."
Bill Browder was one of the most prominent investors in Russia following the collapse of the USSR. He exposed massive Russian government corruption for which he was (falsely) accused of tax evasion and convicted, in absentia. His Russian attorney, Sergey Magnitsky, was arrested and murdered in a Russian prison, prompting Browder to successfully lobby the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act that sanctions Russia for their human rights violations since 2012.
Former US Ambassador Michael McFaul was accused by Putin of unspecified "illegal activities." The idea that President Trump would consider letting a former US diplomat be interrogated by Russia is shocking. The day after McFaul's name was circulated the US Senate voted 98-0 to approve a resolution that the U.S. should "refuse to make available any current or former diplomat, civil servant, political appointee, law enforcement official, or member of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin." President Trump subsequently declined Putin’s offer.
"Disgraceful, Astonishing, Treasonous, Disgusting, Disasterous, Embarassing"
As noted above, President Trump apparently ignored the consensus of his advisers. Instead of demanding that Putin stop the information warfare and attacks on our electoral integrity, instead of demanding that Putin extradite the recently and previously indicted Russian hackers, Trump chose instead to attack the US media, Democrats, and Hillary Clinton. His narcissism prevented him from admitting that his great election victory was tainted. And that is why not only the left, but even mainstream, centrist politicians, and even GOP politicians were criticizing him and throwing around terms like treason and appeasement.
Politicians, media analysts, and US intelligence figures have described President Trump's performance at the joint news conference as "disgraceful," "astonishing," "treasonous," "disgusting," "diasterous," and "embarassing." CNN's Anderson Cooper lamented that "the President showed no backbone publicly in the face of Vladimir Putin" and even the President's staunch supporter Newt Gingrich called Trump's performance "the biggest mistake of his presidency to date."
Damage Control Snafu
Trump's later attempt at damage control, when he said he meant the opposite and that he does believe our intelligence community's assessment that Russia hacked our election, was so transparently false that it was painful. By adding that "it could have been anyone" to his statement that he agreed it was Russia, he negated his "correction". And again, he missed an opportunity to say that we will pursue the hackers and bring them to justice.
Instead, he went through the motions and "with a wink and a nod," did what he thought was minimally necessary to appease his Republican critics. And despite the President's "correction," the US government continues to refuse to appropriate funding to secure upcoming elections from Russian hacking.
Finally, following the torrent of criticism that Trump's performance earned, the President invited Putin to Washington, DC for a summit meeting in the fall. Apparently, President Trump is looking for a Putin-meeting mulligan prior to the US midterm elections. Perhaps Mr. Mueller will have something to add to the conversation at that time as well.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College