Trump can beat Putin — and his critics in the media

Many have already written their narratives of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s planned one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The most extreme anti-Trump versions, indulging in the conspiratorial and hysterical, suggest Trump will be receiving another round of treasonous collusion orders from the Russian premier.

Some mainstream analyses state that Trump loses merely by meeting Putin. The conventional wisdom among the foreign policy elite appears to be that Putin’s grasp of the issues is so superior to our president’s that the sit-down in Helsinki will be a diplomatic battle lost before it was ever fought.

All of this overstates the risks, downplays the possible gains, and tells us more about who the press is rooting for than what Trump can do to advance America’s interests in a single sitting with Moscow’s mercurial strongman.


A more fair-minded assessment is that this Trump-Putin summit is likely to be primarily a rapport-building session between two unpredictable heads of state. Trump himself told CBS News, “Nothing bad will come out of it, and maybe some good will come out.”

It’s not the usual high-minded geopolitical boilerplate of previous presidents, but it’s an honest preview. On the key areas of disagreement between Russia and the United States, change will come slowly if at all. And that would be the case no matter who the U.S. President is, or how early on he met with Putin.

Despite the widespread media narrative, the impediments to Russo-American progress have less to do with Trump’s aptitude for foreign policy than Russian realpolitik. On Ukraine and Crimea in particular, Putin views the issues at stake as core Russian interests. None of that will change based on Trump’s tone or the number of attendees in the room when they chat.

In other areas, there is theoretically more room for progress. The issue of election meddling will certainly get a lot of attention. Yes, Trump should tell Putin that the U.S. will not tolerate cyber intrusions into our political process. Facebook sock puppets and Twitter bots are a far cry from the near nuclear confrontations with the Soviets of old, but Trump shouldn’t ignore state sponsored hacking of Russia today.

But then what? What effect would this have? It’s anybody’s guess, but it ranges from “very little” to “nothing.” Putin is almost certain to brush off Trump’s scolding, and even if Putin promised to get to the bottom of it, nobody paying attention would expect him to keep his word.

Trump has also indicated a willingness to speak to his Russian counterpart about the 12 Russians recently indicted for election interference as part of the Mueller probe. This would be a pro forma request, as only an unserious observer of Russian affairs would believe that Putin would hand over members of the FSB for prosecution in America.

Again, Trump’s media critics at home will push him to make unrealistic demands with the full knowledge that, no matter what he says our does, in their eyes he will be at fault. They will clam Trump’s actions were insufficient, and his relations with Putin suspiciously warm.

So why hold this meeting at all?

For Trump, it’s about disruption. He thinks he can improve our hand in dealing with Russia by merely signaling that the old days of the Obama doctrine are over. While few media outlets will focus on it, Trump has already been a tougher policy opponent for Putin than Obama was during his eight years. From arming the Ukrainians to taking lethal action against Russian paramilitaries in Syria, when it comes to action, Trump’s administration has simply been tougher on Putin.

As for the media and his political opponents at home, Trump is acting with a free hand. He doesn’t care what the critics say, and takes a certain delight in trolling them anyway. More importantly, Trump is in the early stages of forming a relationship with Putin that could be essential — not just for fixing the problems left by the Obama administration, but in addressing the next major policy crisis.

After eight years of an Obama foreign policy team that saw Russia outplay and outmaneuver them at every turn, one would think critics should be a little more circumspect now. For all their tough talk about standing up to dictators, they started with the Russian reset and ended with a Russian Crimea.

Trump is taking the measure of the man today in Helsinki. We can’t know exactly what he will do with that, but given Trump’s ability to defy the consensus and come out ahead, Putin should be ready for anything.

Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center. He is the host of "The Buck Sexton Show” on radio and co-host of The Hill TV's "Rising." He is a frequent guest on Fox News Channel and CNN, and he has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.