President Trump will be playing for high stakes when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, later this week.
The encounter between the two men, the first since Trump became president, will be closely scrutinized in light of the allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election — and because of the ongoing probes into whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
But it is far from certain that Trump will even bring up the issue of Russian interference.
At a White House briefing last week, national security adviser H.R. McMaster insisted “there’s no specific agenda” for the meeting.
“It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
McMaster also sought to play down the importance of the Putin meeting in general, saying that it “won’t be different from our discussions with any other country, really.”
Trump’s last high-profile meeting with Russians turned into a debacle. Meeting Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kisylak in the Oval Office in May, Trump was reported to have revealed highly classified information. He also apparently celebrated his decision to fire FBI director James Comey, describing him to the Russians as “a real nut job.”
At last week’s briefing, however, McMaster said that Trump’s overall policy on Russia has three priorities: to “confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior,” to deter the Kremlin from unwelcome actions and “to foster areas of cooperation.”
What that will mean in specific terms remains to be seen.
Then-President Obama personally confronted Putin in September 2016 over interference, though he has more recently come under criticism for not doing as much as he might have done.
An extensive Washington Post report last month cited an unnamed senior Obama administration official who lamented, “I feel that we sort of choked” on the Russian question.
Obama said last December that he decided at the September meeting “to talk to [Putin] directly and tell him to cut it out and there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t. And in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
On one hand, if the current president fails to raise the issue, he would risk being seen as weaker than his predecessor, whom he often assails as being insufficiently muscular in asserting U.S. power. On the other, he has a long record of being unusually defensive of Putin.
As recently as last month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he didn’t know whether Trump believes Russia meddled in the election.
Back in February, Trump said of Putin, “I do respect him,” and that “it’s better to get along with Russia than not” in an interview with TV anchor Bill O’Reilly, then of Fox News.
When O’Reilly called Putin “a killer,” Trump shot back, “There are a lot of killers. Got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
This week’s meeting is already a subject of partisan debate. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said on Monday that any failure on Trump’s part to bring up the alleged election meddling “sends a signal of weakness.”
Lieu, speaking in an interview with CNN’s Brianna Keilar, added that such a move would also suggest that “the U.S. somehow condones what Russia did last year.”
Some Republicans insist that Trump is much more willing to confront Russia than his critics suggest. Exhibit A, they say, is the president’s decision in early April to launch a military strike on a Syrian airbase.
The strike came in response to a chemical weapons attack attributed to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Russia backs Assad in the long-running Syrian civil war.
“I think Trump’s view of Putin has changed in the last six months,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “Obviously the decision to bomb Syria is, in and of itself, a reflection of how Trump’s view of Russian intentions in Syria has changed.”
CNN reported early Monday that Trump would be most focused on Syria in the Putin meeting, quoting unnamed administration officials. The report suggested that the president would also bring up Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Mackowiak acknowledged there’s no escaping the intensity of interest in the encounter
“There is a dramatic, almost theatrical, aspect to this,” he said.
Democrats are not holding their breath for Trump to take a tough line against Putin. The dynamic between the president and his Russian counterpart is so unusual, they say, that it is simply impossible to know what to expect.
“Under normal circumstances — whatever those are — you’d expect the President of the United States to raise the issue of interference in our election,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who served as campaign manager on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “But there is no sign that he has even contemplated doing that.”
“What would a normal meeting between Trump and Putin look like?” Trippi asked. “I don’t even know how to answer that question.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: Trump faces high stakes meeting with Putin French ambassador: Trump foreign policy ‘not that different’ so far Ivanka says why she is proud to be an American MORE’s presidency.