Trump’s long-awaited meeting with Putin is scheduled for Friday and the stakes couldn’t be higher
The White House confirmed only on Tuesday that the most highly anticipated meeting of US President Donald Trump’s tenure – with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – will take place on Friday in Germany.
But among advisers mindful of the many pitfalls, both domestic and global, preparations have been intense for some time.
The meeting of the two presidents, whose mutual admiration during the 2016 American presidential campaign stoked allegations of collusion that are now at the centre of a criminal investigation in Washington, is likely to be a highlight of a summit of the world’s 20 wealthiest countries starting Thursday in Hamburg.
With issues like North Korea’s continued nuclear threats, Syria, Islamic State and global terrorism on the agenda – and Trump’s political future on leaders’ minds – the eyes of the world are trained toward the two men’s meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit.
“I worry a little about this meeting because Putin is going to walk into the room very well prepared, and I’m not certain Trump will come into that room prepared,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and career diplomat who now is a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Should Trump be unprepared, it won’t be for lack of effort on the Americans’ side.
Leading up to his first face-to-face meeting with Putin, US intelligence officials have prepared a detailed psychological profile of the long-serving Russian leader, strongman, a former KGB officer who spent decades recruiting spies for the Soviet Union and mastered the art of bending people to his will.
The profile, according to two US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is part of a thick binder prepared for Trump. The president often doesn’t read the usual briefing books and relies on in-person briefings, the officials said, so aides also have written a list of tweet-length sentences that summarise the main points Trump could bring up with Putin.
Yet senior aides have not said exactly what the two men will discuss.
“There’s no specific agenda,” said H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. “It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
Trump should expect a strong backlash if he doesn’t tell Putin to keep out of future US elections, said the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.
“If he doesn’t have the courage to raise the issue, Putin will conclude he can walk over our affairs and the president won’t object,” Schiff said. “That would be a big mistake.”
Advisers including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis are trying to carefully script Trump’s interaction to head off any attempt by Putin to manipulate the encounter to his advantage, the US officials said.
Putin is known to prepare assiduously for such high-stakes encounters with foreign counterparts, developing a command of policy objectives and honing a strategy to extract concessions, one US official said.
“Putin was and is a KGB officer and KGB officers are specialists at one thing: seduction – how to persuade others to do what you want,” said John Herbst, a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council and a US ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. “The odds are the atmosphere will be good because our president seems to love Putin, even though it is bad policy.”
Herbst, who as a career Foreign Service officer helped prepare presidents and secretaries of state before such high-stakes interactions, suggested that Putin will try to establish a personal connection with Trump, who is widely seen among his global counterparts as particularly susceptible to flattery. And Putin will want to convince Trump that Russia is not a danger and that Nato is “not as important” as Trump’s advisers say, Herbst said.
The White House said Tuesday that Trump and Putin will have a “normal bilateral meeting” Friday afternoon during the G20 summit. That implies a longer, more formal meeting than the conversation Trump will have with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, as well as other meetings with the leaders of Mexico, Japan and several other countries that day.
Trump is also scheduled to meet with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 gathering, and is expected to keep pressing Xi to use China’s considerable influence over North Korea to get Pyongyang to stop its nuclear programme. Trump could well raise North Korea with Putin, too, with evidence that Russian companies have been selling arms and oil to the rogue state.
The session will be the first formal conversation between Putin and a US president in nearly two years, since the Obama administration moved to isolate Moscow after Russia annexed Crimea and interfered elsewhere in Ukraine.
There is US-Russia tension over Moscow’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and its support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. A special counsel is directing an FBI investigation into whether people associated with Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to help Trump by hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances of being elected.
Besides preparing Trump for the Putin meeting, administration officials are seeking to bolster his leverage with the Russian president going into the talks. Trump’s schedule calls for him to speak Thursday in Warsaw and to meet with leaders of other Eastern European countries, to highlight the US commitment to stand with them to counter Russia’s efforts to regain influence there.
Trump’s initial stop in Poland suggests at least implicitly the continued significance of Nato, contrary to his denigration of the alliance as “obsolete” while campaigning. Both Russian and European leaders will be watching closely to see if he emphasises the US commitment to protect other Nato states under Article 5 of the alliance’s founding charter.
Defense Secretary Mattis called the US obligation “ironclad” in a speech in Germany last week. But Trump’s failure to endorse it during a Nato conference in Brussels in May deeply unsettled allies, though he subsequently voiced support at a news conference in Washington.
Putin is expected to look for ways to further undermine Nato and exploit divisions within it, such as the tension between Trump and Merkel evident at the Nato summit and after Trump’s disavowal of the Paris agreement on climate change.