The Memo: Trump seeks Kim repeat with Putin

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE faces serious risks and some potential rewards when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.

The meeting will inevitably be seen against the backdrop of the investigation by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE into possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.

ADVERTISEMENT
But Trump supporters say there is another, more hopeful parallel: Trump’s summit earlier this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump supporters cast that meeting as showing that the president is increasingly comfortable on the world stage. 

The mood music from the Singapore summit was largely positive, and it may have contributed to Trump’s approval ratings ticking upward in many opinion polls.

When it comes to Putin, however, some skeptics worry about the vagueness of the agenda for the meeting — as well as what they see as Trump’s willingness to appease the Russian leader.

Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeRussia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Overnight Defense: Officials rush to deny writing anonymous op-ed | Lawmakers offer measure on naming NATO headquarters after McCain | US, India sign deal on sharing intel Dems plan resolution to withdraw US forces from Yemen civil war MORE (D-Calif.) told The Hill that while she was "a lifelong advocate for diplomacy," it was also important that "the president needs to be prepared for tough conversations about Russia’s bad behavior — including Putin’s meddling in the 2016 election, domestic human rights abuses, and Russia’s role in enabling the horrors  in Syria."

She added: "President Trump has a track record of praising dictators and strongmen. We need this summit to be constructive, frank and honest. This can’t be another photo-op."

“I don’t know what the meeting is about,” said Michael McFaul, who served as President Obama’s ambassador to Russia and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. 

“What goal is he seeking to achieve? Is he going to negotiate a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine? I literally don’t know.”

The clearest clues to how the encounter is being seen by the administration came on Wednesday, when Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, held a news conference in Moscow. Bolton had been dispatched to finalize the main logistics for the meeting.

Bolton asserted that the mere fact that the meeting was taking place was important.

“I don’t think we expect, necessarily, specific outcomes or decisions,” the national security adviser said, adding that the summit itself was a “deliverable.”

The president has sought to portray the meeting — which will come at the end of a European trip that includes a NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to the United Kingdom — as a broad effort to improve U.S.-Russia relations.

In brief remarks to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, before the summit had been officially confirmed, Trump said: “Getting along with Russia and with China and with everybody is a very good thing. It's good for the world, it's good for us, it's good for everybody.”

The following day, on board Air Force One, deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters characterized the summit as an effort to “help reduce tensions and lead to constructive engagement that improves peace and security around the world.”

Critics, however, worry that Trump will shy away from pressuring Putin on the key issues where the United States and Russia are at odds — notably, the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, its broader actions in eastern Ukraine and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in that nation’s ongoing civil war.

“The key thing is, is anything going to be asked of the Russians, or is the U.S. basically lending legitimacy to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, in Syria, to its illegal seizure of Crimea?" said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. 

“That is what Putin will be after,” Bergmann added. “And the question will be, if Trump gives it to him, why?”

Such questions also go to the wider charge from liberal critics: that Trump is too close to Russia and too inclined to soft-pedal when confrontations arise. Just earlier this month, for example, Trump suggested that Russia should be readmitted to the group of leading industrialized nations from which it was expelled in 2014. The move was made in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

“I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in,” Trump said at a news conference earlier this month during the Group of Seven summit.

When those remarks were made, Ned Price, a former spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama, told CNN that “today crystallizes precisely why Putin was so eager to see Trump elected.”

But the White House has in the past pushed back hard at the narrative that it is soft on Russia. 

Administration sources remind reporters that the president has twice ordered air strikes against the Russian-backed Assad — something that Obama never did. 

They also note that the administration has authorized the sale of lethal aid to Ukraine and has deployed U.S. soldiers to Poland as part of a joint U.S.-NATO task force to counter a perceived Russian threat.

Even McFaul, Obama’a former ambassador, gives the administration credit for its overall policy. The problem, he says, is “that the president doesn’t seem to agree with it.”

He added, with respect to the summit, “a bad outcome would be where Putin gives him a history lesson about Ukraine or about Russia’s relations with Syria, and the president somehow says he will reverse his own administration’s policy. I don’t predict that will happen, to be clear, but that would be my worry.”

Bolton, for his part, insisted that “despite the political noise,” Trump had decided that the meeting was in the “best interests” of the United States.

That noise will be sure to get louder when Trump and Putin finally meet.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.