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Opinion The Trump-Putin summit should set off alarm bells

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with national security adviser John Bolton on Wednesday at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AP)

The announcement of a summit, now scheduled in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sent shivers down the spines of our European allies. Their lack of confidence that Trump understands the Russian threat to Western democracies, let alone that he is willing to do anything about it, was only heightened at the disastrous Group of Seven meeting:

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has told EU countries to prepare for “worst case scenarios” as relations with the US under Donald Trump rapidly deteriorate.
Mr. Tusk wrote to EU states setting out his concern amid a growing trade war, but said “divisions” also go further and that Mr. Trump’s behavior threatens the West’s unity.
Senior EU officials at a briefing later in the day fleshed out his message, saying the US president’s approach to international politics is “very dangerous” and represented the start of a new “worrying” American doctrine.

“This is a summit about appeasement and we should be terrified that Trump is going to sell out America and its allies,” says Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress. “Any other President — Republican or Democrat — would use this summit to confront Russia for its on-going attack on our democracy, for its illegal occupation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, for its efforts to assassinate people using chemical weapons in the U.K., and for its backing of [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad.” He argues, “We should be confronting Russia and redrawing clear red lines, not trying to cut any deals because the only deal to be had is one where Russia agrees to completely change its behavior. That’s not going to happen.”

Those concerned about what Trump will do in Putin’s presence got a potent reminder in the form of — what else? — a tweet shedding doubt on Russia’s role in interfering with our election. “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Trump tweet Thursday morning. “Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!” Once more he is prepared to believe Putin over the unanimous opinion of our intelligence community.

The list of entirely reasonable concerns about a Trump-Putin get-together is long. Trump could very easily:

  • Divulge more highly classified information, as he did in his Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador;
  • Signal that we are willing to back away from sanctions while Russia still occupies Ukraine;
  • Suggest that we’re less than enthusiastic about defending our NATO allies in Eastern Europe (thereby tempting Putin to gobble up a Baltic state or two);
  • Give Putin preferential trade promises while the United States and the European Union engage in a trade war;
  • Exhibit nonchalance about Russia meddling in our election as well as the elections of our allies, thereby encouraging Putin to do more of the same;
  • Reveal his complete ignorance of and lack of interest in Syria, where Russia is solidifying its presence along with its Iranian junior partners;
  • Suggest Russia (and others) won’t be sanctioned for continuing to operate under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (giving Iran the benefits of the deal but theoretically not holding them to obligations); and
  • Make agreements or promises to Putin of which only the two of them are aware, thereby deepening the level of intrigue and the influence that Putin seems to wield over Trump.

I am sure there are other concerns, but they collectively boil down to this: If Trump really were a Russian asset, it’s hard to think what else he could do to rupture the Western alliance, diminish U.S. influence, undercut democratic government and human rights, boost Russia’s leverage in the Middle East and give Putin a green light to manipulate our elections with impunity.

It’s frankly not clear why Trump is having a summit with Putin at all. National security adviser John Bolton was quick to point out that it sure wasn’t his idea. “President Trump believes so strongly that it was time to have this kind of meeting and as you can see, President Putin agreed,” Bolton told the media. Indeed, Trump’s eagerness to meet with Putin has only reinforced suspicions that he will be eager to make concessions to Putin out of the desire to stay in the Kremlin’s good graces.

“I have no idea why this summit is needed,” says former FBI special agent Clint Watts. “Trump’s meeting with Putin legitimizes Russian interference amongst Americans. Trump thinks he’s a deal maker, but his overconfidence leads him to be manipulated by Putin. He carries Putin’s message back to Trump supporters and they (Americans) then degrade US institutions with Putin’s narratives.”

Others agree. “If Trump follows through on his moves to yield to Russia, praise Putin, and pull punches on Russia’s destabilizing behavior, historians in the future could look at this the way they see Neville Chamberlain’s meeting in Munich in 1938 — a naïve effort to placate an adversary who has been chipping away at the international system and core human values,” says Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress. “Russia has undercut the international system and basic norms for years now. It has interfered in democracies like America with the goal of sowing discord and producing more pliant leaders like Trump. It invaded and annexed Ukraine; it murders opponents at home and overseas; it uses dangerous chemical weapons in places like Britain; and it has slaughtered Syrian civilians in bombings of hospitals.” And yet, Katulis notes, “Trump has been curiously reluctant to criticize let alone do much to counter and constrain Russia in any meaningful way.”

And that brings us back to the Russia investigation. Why would a president so desirous of making America strong be so obsequious and accommodating when it comes to Russia? That’s a question that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III presumably is looking at.

Whatever the motive for his scraping and bowing, Trump certainly does not inspire confidence that he will resist the empty promises and saccharine-sweet praise that dictators offer him, especially after his performance at the Singapore summit, where he delivered to Kim Jong Un more than the North Korean leader could have ever hoped (e.g. stature, cessation of South Korea-U.S. military exercises) in exchange for nothing. (Now there is evidence that North Korea is upgrading one of its nuclear facilities.) If Trump gave up all that to Kim, goodness knows what goodies he will lavish on Putin.