The Memo: Five things to watch in Trump-Putin meeting

President TrumpDonald TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party MORE will soon sit down for his first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The meeting is set to begin at 9:45 a.m. Friday and will likely overshadow anything else that Trump does at the meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized nations in Hamburg, Germany.


The encounter takes place as investigators search for any evidence of collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia's efforts to influence the presidential election. No such evidence has yet been uncovered, but the backdrop makes the Putin meeting politically perilous for the president.

Here are the key things to watch.

What will Trump say about Russian meddling?

U.S. intelligence services are adamant that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. 

Fired FBI Director James Comey told Congress last month he had “no doubt” Russia was behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee and of high-level members of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives like Turner should reconsider running as Democrats Biden wishes Obama a happy birthday Ohio special election: A good day for Democrats MORE’s campaign.

But Trump has been much more equivocal on the issue, which arose again during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday.

In response to a question about election interference from Hallie Jackson of NBC News, Trump said: “I agree, I think it was Russia — but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.” 

The problem for Trump is that failure to raise the issue with Putin will only fuel criticism from his domestic political enemies. They already say he is too closely aligned with the Russian president. 

The Kremlin would, presumably, be happy to inform the media if Trump decides against talking about the topic at all.

Trump has also criticized former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland On The Money: Trump asks court to block release of tax returns to Congress | Private sector adds 330K jobs in July, well short of expectations Biden wishes Obama a happy birthday MORE in recent days — including at Thursday’s news conference — for not doing enough to counter Russia’s efforts last year. 

But the smart money is on Trump raising the issue briefly rather than making it the centerpiece of the meeting. 

The president, who believes that he is not given enough credit for his win last November, is likely to balk at saying anything that might seem to buttress his critics’ case.

Who will be in the meeting?

The meeting will reportedly be a small one, including only Trump and Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and two interpreters.

Assuming there are no last minute changes, that means there will be no place for Fiona Hill, a White House adviser who is more hawkish than some other Trump confidants when it comes to Russia. Hill is the co-author of a critical biography of Putin, “Operative in the Kremlin.” 

There has been speculation that some within the White House orbit were pushing for Hill to be included in the meeting, in part to counter suggestions that it would be an overly chummy affair. 

Tillerson is the recipient of a medal from Russia: the Order of Friendship, which he received in 2013. The honor was an acknowledgement of the extensive involvement he had with Russia in his former job, as CEO of energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp.

What will the body language be like?

Trump and Putin’s meeting will last approximately 30 minutes, and there is no suggestion that the duo will hold a news conference or even answer any questions from reporters. But any footage of the two together will be closely scrutinized.

Those visuals are likely to be the most memorable element of the encounter. It will be trouble for Trump if he appears too affable with Putin. 

Images taken by a Russian photographer of an Oval Office meeting that Trump held with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in May showed the three men laughing together.

That was unhelpful enough in itself for the White House — and only became more so when it was reported that Trump had disclosed classified information during the meeting.

At other times, the body language between Trump and other international leaders has been seen as frosty — most obviously during a White House visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March.

On Friday, many of the president’s supporters would welcome a little coolness in the body language between him and Putin.

What will Putin do?

The Russian president has his own agenda going into the meeting, and it will likely include calling on Trump to ease or remove sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine and for its alleged election meddling. 

It is possible that Putin could call for the return of two Russian facilities in the U.S. — one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and another near New York City — that were closed in the waning days of the Obama administration.

Trump’s leeway may end up being constrained. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill before the Fourth of July recess that would give Congress the power to review any easing of sanctions on Russia, ratcheting up pressure on the House to do likewise.

Substantive issues aside, plenty of people will be curious as to how Putin, a former KGB officer, will treat Trump. 

The Russian leader once brought his large black Labrador to a meeting with Merkel, who is afraid of dogs. 

With Trump, most people expect Putin to be more inclined to flatter and cajole rather than threaten.

Any way forward on Syria?

Most experts believe this meeting will be more about each man taking the measure of the other, rather than reaching any substantive agreements.

That said, in addition to Ukraine and sanctions, the other big issue that is virtually certain to come up is Syria.

Prior to taking office, Trump argued that the U.S. and Russia might be able to create an informal alliance of convenience to “knock the hell out of ISIS.” 

In April, however, Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield after a chemical attack for which President Bashar Assad’s forces were held responsible. Russia is allied with Assad in the country's ongoing civil war.

Earlier this week, Tillerson opened the door to establishing “joint mechanisms” with Russia, possibly including no-fly zones, with the goal of laying “a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future.”

Can the two men find any way forward there?

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