The Memo: Fears rise about Trump-Putin meeting

Anticipation and anxiety about President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin are hitting new highs after a stormy NATO summit in Brussels.

Trump's sit-down with Putin, set to take place in Helsinki on Monday, was always going to be controversial given the probe into Russia's election meddling led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and the rampant speculation about Trump’s attitudes toward Russia.

But the meeting has taken on a whole new significance after the NATO summit. 

Trump blasted allied nations in Brussels for allegedly not contributing enough to NATO; hit Germany for its use of Russian natural gas; and even reportedly suggested the United States could “go it alone” if other countries did not boost their financial commitments.

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“I don’t think there has been a more damaging meeting of NATO in my memory,” said David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a foreign policy expert. “Right now, the participants in NATO leave this meeting concerned about its future — statements to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Rothkopf asserted that such chaos would bring a smile to Putin’s face.

“All of this is a fantastic gift to Vladimir Putin, who strategically has no greater goal than to destabilize the Western alliance,” he said.

Other Western leaders couched their disagreements with Trump in diplomatic terms, but there was no mistaking the tensions on display at the annual gathering.

Trump’s suggestion during a Thursday news conference that alliance members might each commit to spending 4 percent of their gross domestic product on defense — double the current 2024 target of 2 percent — was batted down moments later by French President Emmanuel Macron.

And after Trump asserted that Germany was “totally controlled by Russia,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited her upbringing in what was then East Germany to rebuke him. 

“I experienced the Soviet occupation of one part of Germany myself. It is good that we are independent today,” Merkel said.

While Trump declared Thursday before leaving Brussels that he believes in NATO, Democrats worry that Trump is fundamentally undermining the alliance — and that his fiery rhetoric slamming member nations sets the stage for his meeting with Putin in all the wrong ways. 

“His behavior at NATO did nothing to diminish the fear that he is going to walk into the open embrace of Putin — and who knows what gifts he is going to give?” said Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State under President Obama.

Defenders of Trump, however, take some glee in what they see as a rattling of the establishment.

They view Trump as a leader who was elected to break with timorous traditions and defend American interests in a forceful way — as encapsulated by his “America First” campaign slogan.

“This is precisely why Americans supported Donald Trump,” said Michael Caputo, an aide to the 2016 Trump campaign and a longtime friend of the president. 

“There are many of us who feel we have been taken advantage of around the world — in trade, in multilateral defense and in other issues,” Caputo added. “By insisting on our allies carrying their fair share on defense, he is simply delivering on an electoral promise. If he did anything less, millions of us would be disappointed.”

One Republican strategist with ties to the White House, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, acknowledged that Trump’s NATO language caused unease — but argued that this was a price worth paying.

“The president’s comments were incendiary, while at the same time people across America love that,” the person said. “Trump voters across America love that type of language because he is actually moving the dial … It is all done by design, and that is shocking to the foreign policy and diplomatic establishment.”

Those establishment voices protest that they are not just worried about tone or etiquette, however. 

They note that Trump recently suggested Russia should be readmitted to the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations, from which it was expelled due to its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Even at his Thursday press conference, Trump was vague on what he would tell Putin about Crimea, saying that he was “not happy” about the situation there, but also blaming it on Obama.

“Is he willing to allow an aggression to stand without any real consequence?,” Rubin wondered. “Even if Obama were 100 percent to blame for it, that does not absolve the current president of the issue.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who reacted with fury to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March, pointedly said during the NATO summit that it was important for allies “to raise the cost of malign behavior whenever it occurs.”

Skeptics were also unimpressed by Trump’s insistence at his news conference that there was little he could do about alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections, beyond asking Putin about it.

“All I can do is say, 'Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it,” Trump said.

The White House is eager to push back on claims that Trump is too soft with Putin.

Administration officials repeatedly cite actions his administration has taken that seem antithetical to the Kremlin’s interests — from giving permission for the sale of lethal aid to Ukraine to twice launching missile strikes on Syria, where Russia’s ally Bashar Assad remains in power.

When it comes to NATO, Caputo argued, “I am not buying into the concept that Donald Trump helping create a better-funded NATO alliance somehow helps Russia.”

But others argue that, taken in total, Trump’s words and actions have delivered a significant dividend to Putin. The damage, they say, has already been done.

In Helsinki, “Trump could show up empty-handed,” said Rothkopf. “Putin is still going to give him a big hug.”

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