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Trump and Putin agree to a summit in hopes of soothing U.S.-Russia tensions

On June 27, President Trump spoke about some of his expectations for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Video: The Washington Post)
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MOSCOW — Signaling a growing rapprochement between the United States and Russia, the White House and the Kremlin on Thursday will announce the date and location of a summit meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir ­Putin.

Both men have pursued the tete-a-tete in hopes of soothing tensions over Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, despite retaliatory actions taken by both governments this year.

Plans for the Trump-Putin summit were finalized here on Wednesday by national security adviser John Bolton, who held marathon meetings in the Russian capital that included talks with Putin himself at the Kremlin.

Trump has long sought to cultivate a warm friendship with his Russian counterpart as a means to solving in­trac­table problems around the world, and he has said he admires the strength of Putin’s authoritarian rule. Bolton said Wednesday that Trump “believes so strongly” that now is the time for a new level of personal engagement — and that Putin agrees.

“Both President Trump and President Putin think they may be able to find constructive solutions,” Bolton said at a news conference in Moscow after his day of meetings. “I’d like to hear someone say that’s a bad idea.”

Bolton said the summit’s time and place would be announced simultaneously in Washington and Moscow on Thursday. The summit is expected to take place in mid-July outside Russia, during Trump’s trip to Europe for a previously scheduled NATO summit meeting July 11-12 in Brussels and a visit to Britain on July 13. Trump said the Putin meeting would occur “probably after” the NATO summit, a sequencing that is of particular concern to European allies. There is speculation that Trump and Putin could meet in Helsinki or Vienna, but neither U.S. nor Russian officials confirmed the location.

Looking ahead to his Putin meeting, Trump told reporters Wednesday, “I’ve said it from Day One, getting along with Russia and China and with everybody is a very good thing.” The president praised the Russians for doing “a fantastic job” hosting the World Cup, complimenting the quality of the venues and saying that the matches have been “exciting even if you are not a soccer fan.”

Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said the summit announcement “is a sign of Trump unbound.”

“He wants to work with Putin. This is what he’s told people he’s going to do, and he’s not listening to any objections,” Wright said, noting that Trump “was always a reluctant participant” in implementing sanctions and other tough measures against Russia.

Trump’s summit with Putin threatens to further rupture his relationship with European leaders and is likely to raise additional doubts about his commitment to the United States’ traditional alliances. It will also garner scrutiny in light of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s election interference and possible collusion between Putin’s government and Trump’s campaign.

Bolton dismissed those concerns while chiding Trump’s domestic detractors. 

“A lot of people have said or implied over time that a meeting between President Trump and President Putin would somehow prove some nexus between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which is complete nonsense,” Bolton said.

Trump, he continued, believes that “what must guide his conduct of American foreign policy is the pursuit of American national interests, and he judges, correctly in my view, that this bilateral summit between himself and President Putin is something that he needs to do and will do regardless of political criticism at home.”

In Washington, Trump’s critics worry that he might shrink from directly confronting Putin on the substantial and serious differences between their countries. They cited not only Russia’s election interference but also its alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain; its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government; and its occupation of Crimea in Ukraine.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that a Trump-Putin summit could be constructive and noted that U.S. presidents regularly met with Russian leaders at the height of the Cold War.

But, Coons said, “I’m very concerned that President Trump can’t help himself but try to please another autocrat at the expense of our democracy.”

“If we can have a better and stronger relationship with any country in the world and can directly address challenges we have with them, that’s to our benefit,” Coons added. “That’s the point of diplomacy over military conflict. But it doesn’t advance America’s interest to knuckle under or brush aside significant threats to our security or our allies’ security.”

Despite his frequent praise for Putin, Trump has said that he has been tougher on Russia than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton would have been, pointing to his administration’s expulsion of Russian diplomats and closure of some consulates and compounds in the United States, as well as sanctions.

At a campaign rally last week in Minnesota, Trump said, “We want to get along with Russia, but Russia is looking out and saying, ‘Man, I wish she won.’ . . . They’re saying, ‘You know, I wish Crooked Hillary won that election. It would have been a lot better for Russia.’ ”

At the Kremlin, Putin warmly greeted Bolton in a grand oval meeting hall, flanked by statues of Russian czars set before lime-painted walls. The Russian president opened the meeting by repeating to Bolton his frequent contention that U.S.-Russia relations are in a poor state in large part because of the domestic political environment in the United States. 

“Your visit here to Moscow inspires hope that we will be able to take first steps to restore full-fledged relations between Russia and the United States,” Putin said. “Russia never sought confrontation, and I hope that today we will be able to talk about what we can do from both sides in order to restore full-fledged relations on the foundation of equality and of respect for each other’s interests.” 

Bolton’s engagement with Putin on Wednesday contrasted sharply with the longtime hawk’s harsh criticism of the Russian president before he took over as Trump’s national security adviser in April. Last year, Bolton described Russian interference in the 2016 election as “a true act of war” and concluded: “We negotiate with Russia at our peril.” 

John Bolton was once a fierce critic of Putin

On Wednesday, by contrast, Bolton told Putin at the outset of their meeting that he hoped Russia and the United States could find “areas where we can agree and make progress together.” He quipped that he looked forward to “hearing about how you handled the World Cup so successfully,” drawing a big smile from the Russian president. 

“Even in earlier days when our countries had differences, our leaders and their advisers met,” Bolton said. “I think that was good for both countries, good for stability in the world, and President Trump feels very strongly on that subject.”

Bolton’s meeting with Putin also included talks on Iran, Syria and nuclear arms control, officials said. The discussions “very briefly” touched on allegations of Russian election interference, Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said. 

“From our side, it was clearly stated that the Russian state did not interfere and does not interfere in domestic political processes in the United States, and most certainly did not interfere in the 2016 election,” Ushakov said. 

Bolton said election interference would be part of the conversation when Putin and Trump meet. Asked at his news conference about his prior writings on the matter, Bolton said he would not comment on his statements before entering his current job. 

“Right now, I’m an adviser to President Trump,” Bolton said. “It’s his agenda that we’re pursuing.”

Russian officials have sought a Trump-Putin summit for months and have blamed U.S. domestic politics for the difficulty in making it happen. Trump has also pushed for a meeting with Putin despite resistance from senior political aides and diplomats. 

Bolton’s visit to Moscow came as Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, was in Washington this week for meetings with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, as well as to attend the World Gas Conference. Tass, a Russian government-owned news agency, reported that Novak discussed gas development and other energy investments by U.S. companies in Russia with Mnuchin and Perry.

“The executive branch has bowed to what the president wants,” Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, said of Trump and his administration. “He wants a summit, and he’s going to get a summit. He wants business ties to improve, so these meetings that Alexander Novak had with Secretary Perry and Secretary Mnuchin are part of that.”

Rucker reported from Washington.