WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki for the leaders’ first bilateral summit and a one-on-one meeting that he predicted would be the “easiest” talk of all after his drama-filled European trip last week.
The historic summit could not come at a more sensitive time for Trump.
It follows a contentious two-day NATO summit last week at which Trump berated the majority of alliance leaders — and Germany in particular — for not living up to their pledge to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
Then at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday in London, Trump had to walk back criticism of her policies he leveled during an interview with British newspaper The Sun the previous day — a story he then derided as “fake news.”
Both incidents reinforced criticism that Trump employs unnecessary roughness with U.S. allies, yet is overly attentive to authoritarian adversaries like Putin.
Complicating Trump’s visit with his Russian counterpart was Friday’s Department of Justice announcement that a grand jury had indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on hacking charges for trying to interfere with the U.S. 2016 presidential election, based on charges presented by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Indictments amp up pressure
The indictments add new pressure for Trump, who frequently dismisses the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt,” to confront Putin about Russia’s malign activity. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who announced the indictment, said he had briefed the president on the charges in advance of Trump’s departure for Europe on Tuesday.
Asked if he would confront Putin on election meddling at Friday’s press conference with May, Trump replied, “I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.” But he also said he did not expect Putin to come clean on the matter.
In the wake of Friday’s indictments, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Trump to cancel the Helsinki summit “until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections.”
The White House did not comply. White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters issued a statement that noted, “Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the (Trump) campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result.”
For her part, May told reporters that she welcomed Trump’s meeting with Putin and praised the White House for expelling 60 Russian officials in March after a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, apparently at the direction of Putin’s regime.
Russia denies involvement in the Salisbury incident as well as any meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Air Force One is scheduled to touch down in Helsinki on Sunday night after Trump concludes a weekend at his Scottish golf resort, Turnberry.
He is expected to meet with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Finland’s capital Monday morning, then hold a bilateral meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. Niinisto will then greet Putin at the presidential palace at 1 p.m.
After Trump returns to the palace, he and Putin will hold private discussions in the Gothic Hall, followed by an expanded bilateral session and a wider working session in the Hall of Mirrors.
According to the Finnish government, Putin and Trump will hold a joint press conference afterward in the Hall of State.
The president plans to fly back to the United States on Monday night.
Up for discussion
Trump told reporters in the U.K. that he and Putin would discuss Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East and nuclear proliferation, as well as election meddling.
Once again, Trump pointed out that Russia annexed Crimea on President Barack Obama’s watch. “This was an Obama disaster,” he said. “If I were president, he would not have taken over.”
Senate Democrats on Saturday released a letter in which they urged Trump not to meet alone with Putin.
“If you insist on meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, we write to urge that you include senior members of your team and not meet one-on-one with Mr. Putin, as reportedly planned.” they wrote. “Mr. Putin is a trained KGB intelligence veteran who will come to this meeting well-prepared. As the Kremlin said last week, a one-one-one meeting with you ‘absolutely suits’ him. There must be other Americans in the room.”
It remains to be seen if any substantial announcements will follow the summit.
Reno’s Ty Cobb, a former foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, said he anticipates the two sides might announce a new agreement to increase military communication around Syria to avoid an “accidental conflagration” or a new round of negotiations to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
But while he expects the two leaders to “try to make it a highlight,” Cobb sees the timing after the contentious NATO summit working against Trump.
“If I were sitting in Moscow,” he said, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of the NATO summit.”
Ellen Tauscher, a former Obama undersecretary of state, also has low expectations, predicting that Trump would meet with Putin “unprepared” and “without an agenda,” as she believes he did during the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
Tauscher observed that Trump frequently references his late uncle John Trump, who taught at MIT and schooled the president on nuclear issues. Trump, did in fact, mention his uncle Friday, and when asked about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in Singapore.
“It’s ridiculous that he can actually assert that he knows all about nuclear because he talked to his uncle who died in 1985,” she said. “Not the State Department,” or knowledgeable military advisers, “not even anybody since the turn of the century 18 years ago.”
Tauscher also wondered at Trump’s overtures to a country she liked to “a bankrupt gas station.”
“There’s no reason that we need to be nice to Moscow or Putin,” Cobb agreed. “It’s a banana republic” that, if not for nuclear weapons, would not deserve the respect and attention Trump gives it.
“The president will drive the discussion on malign activity and election meddling. He knows the facts and the details and he’s discussed it. We all talk about it a little differently, but the president has talked about it in his own way.”
-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, at a July 5 briefing.