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Opinion Trump’s secret summit offer shows he just can’t quit Putin

President Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vietnam in November. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

This would be just the sort of thing John Bolton would rail against: While under assault from Russian cyber-warfare aimed at our elections, in the wake of attempted murders of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, as Russian troops are supporting Iran in Syria and when Russia still occupies part of Ukraine, the weak-kneed U.S. president invites Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit. Outrageous! Conveys weakness! Shows fear and irresoluteness! Yup, and that is Bolton’s new boss at work.

The Post reports:

In a phone call last month, President Trump proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two meet in the White House, a Kremlin aide said Monday.
The aide, Yury Ushakov, said no preparations for such a meeting have taken place since the March 20 phone call, according to Russian news agencies.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
“If everything will be all right, I hope that the Americans will not back away from their own proposal to discuss the possibility of holding a summit,” Ushakov said, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. “When our presidents spoke on the phone, it was Trump who proposed holding the first meeting in Washington in the White House.”
Trump congratulated Putin in a phone call two days after the Russian president’s reelection to a fourth term last month. After the call, Trump said he and Putin would get together “in the not-too-distant future.”

There are a bunch of serious concerns here.

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First, why do the Russians know about this but Congress and the American people don’t? One is reminded of Trump’s tête-à-tête with Russian officials in the White House, where Russian but not American journalists were briefly allowed in. Like his son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who met Russians during the transition to discuss setting up a secret back channel with Russia outside the purview of U.S. intelligence officials), Trump seems to forget he is on the American team, not the Russian team. If American officials, like the rest of us, are learning about this only now, the Trump administration’s dysfunction is worse than we feared. 

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Second, the message Trump’s offer sent — and the contempt with which Russia now treats the offer — confirms the picture of a U.S. president groveling before a foreign leader. (“Since then, relations between Moscow and Washington have taken a further plunge in the aftermath of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain. Given that environment, Ushakov said Monday, ‘it is of course difficult to discuss the possibility of holding a summit,’ the Russian news agency Interfax reported.”) As former ambassador Eric Edelman put it, “This can’t help but revive all kinds of speculation about the unusual nature of the Trump-Putin relationship.  It was clearly something he did on his own without staff input.” He added, “Of course it can only serve to undercut the stern message sent by the expulsion of 60 Russian spies and all of the US warnings about the horrific Russian supported attacks in eastern Ghoutta.  If this meeting comes off it will be one of the first serious tests of NSA John Bolton’s ability to manage ‘Trump unchained.'”

Finally, this casts Trump’s congratulations to Putin despite the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” warning from advisers in an even more ominous light. Trump seems bound and determined to stay in Putin’s good graces and try to mollify him in person (perhaps with no aides present, as he did at the Group of 20 meeting last year). “This should put to bed the absurd narrative that Trump is ‘strong’ on Russia,” says Max Bergmann, who leads the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress. “What’s clear is that Trump is the one holding back his administration from taking strong action. They aren’t implementing the sanctions law and they haven’t spent a dime on countering Russian disinformation. The current tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions do little to punish the Kremlin.”

In December 2016, Bolton had these harsh words about President Barack Obama’s Russia policy:

“I don’t think they will have much impact at all,” John Bolton said of the Obama administration’s sanctions. … “The Russians have walked all over the Obama administration for eight years. It’s really been a pathetic performance. So what this last burst of activity has to do is hard to say. I do think it’s intended to try and box the Trump administration in. I think it will fail. This is simply an executive order. If President Trump decides to reverse it, it’s easy enough to do.” …
Ultimately, Bolton offered Trump far less room to maneuver than Heritage did, stipulating that “if even a piece of what is alleged about this Russian activity is true, it is utterly unacceptable,” since Putin’s actions would represent “an attack on our constitutional system.”

Well, at least Obama didn’t offer Putin a summit after learning of Russia’s attacks on our electoral system.