As he left the White House on Tuesday, on his way to meetings with foreign leaders in Europe, President Trump made an odd assertion.
Those at his first stop, the member nations of NATO, have “not treated us fairly” because “we pay far too much and they pay far too little,” he said. As for Britain, where he headed on Thursday, “that’s a situation that’s been going on for a long time” and, following the resignations of senior officials on Monday, the country is “in somewhat turmoil.”
“And I have Putin,” Trump said, referring to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. “Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think? Who would think?”
Under normal circumstances — a phrase that under normal circumstances we use less regularly than we do now — a presidential summit with the leader of a long-standing foreign adversary would be considered a high-risk event, necessitating a great deal of analysis and input to establish the important boundaries and desired outcomes. It would look, at least, more like Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month: Something to be treated as exceptional with clear-cut aims and focus. Under normal circumstances, too, a meeting with NATO allies would be comparatively simple. A casual trip to Britain? A walk in the park, perhaps literally. Yet Trump sees Putin as the simple one.
Why? For reasons he evidenced during an impromptu news conference before departing the NATO summit.
Asked by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker how he would respond if Putin denied Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump waved it away.
“I mean, look, he may,” Trump replied. “You know, what am I going to do if — he may deny it. I mean, it’s one of those things. So all I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ ”
As our Aaron Blake noted, this stands in stark contrast to how Trump approaches America’s putative friends in NATO. Even before arriving at this week’s summit, Trump was hectoring Germany and other NATO nations about their spending on defense. On Wednesday, he claimed that Germany was “totally controlled” by Russia because it gets a portion of its natural gas from the country. During the news conference, he declared that his relentless hammering of America’s allies was successful and that the allies have committed to increased spending, something French President Emmanuel Macron later denied.
With our friends, Trump is more than happy to tug whatever levers he has within reach, even ones that U.S. presidents are generally loath to pull, like the veiled threat of undercutting the alliance. With Putin, Trump is more likely to suggest that there really are no good levers. Even the strict sanctions imposed against Russia with his signature last year came only grudgingly, with Congress doing most of the pulling on that particular lever.
Trump’s position toward the NATO allies is one of aggression. His position toward Russia and Putin is much more passive. A sort of shrugging, we’ll-see-what-happens approach to America’s foremost geopolitical opponent over the past century.
In a remarkable quote from that news conference, though, Trump explained why he refused to treat Putin the way most American presidents would treat the leader of Russia.
“He’s a competitor. He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him. I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor.”
“Somebody was saying, is he an enemy? He’s not my enemy. Is he a friend? No, I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times I’ve gotten to meet him, we get along very well.”
“I hope we get along well. I think we get along well. But ultimately, he’s a competitor. He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So, in a sense, we’re competitors. Not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy. And, hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. But I just don’t know him very well. I’ve met him a couple of times.”
There are two things about that statement that are, for lack of a better word, staggering.
The first is that Trump frames the interaction with Putin almost exclusively in personal terms. Putin is a competitor to him. He is not Trump’s personal enemy and, who knows! Maybe he and Putin can eventually be personal friends. One of the first things that mediocre middle managers say their first day on the job is that they aren’t there to be employees’ friends; it’s all about the job. Trump’s telling Putin, in short, that Russia’s relationship with the United States depends almost entirely on Putin being friends with Trump. For a Russian leader with few scruples and little to lose, that kicks open a very big door of opportunity.
The second thing about Trump’s statement is how his framing of the relationship as personal undercuts his own case.
Why isn’t Putin a friend or an enemy? Because Trump “[doesn’t] know him well enough.” Well, the United States knows Putin quite well, and both historians and intelligence analysts can describe in great detail the relationship between our countries and Putin’s efforts to undercut American geopolitical standing. America knows Putin well, but Trump actively chooses to set that knowledge aside. Putin looks the way Trump thinks a leader should look, and Trump clearly admires that. That Putin’s approach to leadership is broadly antithetical to how American leadership is expected to behave is an important but ignored complication.
America has a complex relationship with NATO that requires things of the United States and its leadership. Its leadership expects to be able to treat the president as a peer. Putin, on the other hand, is willing to flatter and hype Trump because he has no relationship to protect — and Trump has expressed little interest in pressing the Russian on issues considered vitally important elsewhere in his administration. Can’t be friends with a guy if you come out of the gates yelling at him, even if Trump were inclined to yell at Putin about helping him win his election.
No wonder the Putin meeting is easier for Trump than the NATO one.
The lingering question, of course, is why this is Trump’s approach to Putin. His most fervent opponents would suggest that the true answer to that question is known only to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, or, perhaps, by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. It seems clear, though, that a significant part of Trump’s approach is simply how he sees dealmaking. NATO is a contract that was thrust upon him. Putin is a deal waiting to be made between two strong-minded individuals. That others insist such a deal is unwise or can’t be done is all the more reason for Trump to run toward it.
The experts told Trump he wasn’t going to win the presidency, too, after he spent months he insisted he knew what he was doing. It’s hard to overestimate how much his electoral victory probably reinforced his sense that, when it came to the presidency, he knew better.