President Trump’s trip to Poland and the Group of 20 summit in Germany is yet another reminder that his presidency has the qualities of a three-ring circus, with activity coming from a variety of directions all at the same time and with no easy way in the moment to decide what is most important or credible.
Two events dominated the president’s European visit: his eagerly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and his tone-setting speech about the future of the West a day earlier in Warsaw. Each rightly drew worldwide attention. Both could prove to be potential foundational moments in the Trump presidency.
But there were other discordant moments that distracted from the big set pieces. They were a reminder of how difficult it is to find consistency or predictability in Trump’s presidency. They included the president’s public equivocation about Russian interference in the 2016 election and his dissing of U.S. intelligence capabilities during a news conference in Poland, and then a bizarre and inaccurate tweet on Friday morning about John Podesta and Russian hacking hours before Trump was to see Putin.
No recent meeting between world leaders came with such advance hype as the session between Trump and Putin. That’s because no relationship has been more fraught for Trump, because of Russia’s efforts to meddle in his behalf during the election backdropped by Trump’s regular expressions of admiration for Putin.
This was more than an opportunity for Trump and Putin to get acquainted and to take a measure of each other, more than a moment for photo ops and handshakes and other trappings that often signify little. Dangers from North Korea’s nuclear pursuits, the war in Syria (where the two agreed to try to enforce a cease-fire in the southwestern part of the country) and the overall fight against the Islamic State demanded serious and presumably frank discussions.
That their meeting lasted far longer than scheduled — at two hours and 15 minutes, it was more than twice as long as planned — was not a surprise. The leaders of the nations with the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals and with clear differences about many issues had a potential agenda that could have kept them together hours longer. The lengthy meeting was a constructive sign, given the state of the relationship.
What isn’t known is what Trump, who is quick to judge the strengths and weaknesses of people, made of Putin. Did he emerge from their two hours of talks and sparring with a different impression of the Russian leader? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the two had good chemistry. Trump is susceptible to flattery. Did he leave with a feeling that Putin was more trustworthy or less trustworthy than when he entered the room?
Then, of course, there was the elephant in the room, which was Russia’s role in the U.S. election. Pregame speculation questioned whether Trump would even address it face to face. He did, but there were conflicting accounts of what was said on that topic.
Tillerson said Trump had started the meeting by raising the issue of Russian interference and that Putin had offered what is his standard denial that the Russians did anything nefarious during the 2016 campaign.
Just how forcefully Trump pressed the issue — Tillerson said the president brought it up more than once — is so far unknown. There was no immediate indication of any softening of the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in retaliation to the hacking, which has been a Russian goal. But the readouts suggested that Trump had no appetite for a sustained argument about Russia’s behavior.
As he has signaled in other interactions with other world leaders, Trump is transactional and therefore willing to look past such things as human rights abuses and other transgressions that have drawn rebukes from previous U.S. administrations as he pursues other goals. Whether that approach will produce desired results hasn’t been given a full test, although it has not prompted the kind of tough action by China toward North Korea that Trump wants.
Tillerson told reporters in Hamburg that neither leader was eager to re-litigate the past, that their differences on Russian meddling were “intractable” and that each was looking for a way to put the relationship between these two adversaries on firmer and more positive footing.
On one key point, the accounts of the meeting were at odds. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Trump had listened to Putin’s denial of interference, had accepted those statements and had dismissed the investigation into Russian interference. Tillerson said Putin, despite the denials, had nonetheless agreed to talks about noninterference in U.S. elections.
What Trump said in response to Putin’s denial is a critical question, given what he said the day before at a news conference. Asked by reporters on Thursday whether he fully accepted U.S. intelligence findings of Russian interference, Trump again declined to give a clear answer. “I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries,” he said. Trump added that “a lot of people interfere” and have been for some time. “Nobody really knows for sure,” he said.
If that is Trump’s true belief, and he has said it often enough over many months to make it seem as though it is what he thinks, then how exactly did he raise the issue directly with Putin, and how forcefully did he press the case when Putin offered his denial? Having raised it with the Russian leader, is that the end of it for the president, at least in terms of what he plans to do either to punish the Russians or aggressively look to prevent a repeat performance in 2018 or 2020?
His true feelings may have come out on Friday morning when he tweeted, “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” There are any number of inaccuracies in that tweet, and Podesta, on a road trip with his wife, pointed them out in a response published by The Washington Post. Trump’s tweet was a reminder that, on matters related to Russia and the election, the president continues to look for diversions and digressions, raising more questions about what transpired in his meeting with Putin.
Trump’s speech in Warsaw drew more positive reviews than his address to NATO when he was in Europe in May. In Poland, he unequivocally reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty dealing with common defense. In May, he pointedly did not.
His speech was nationalistic in tone, yet different from some in the past. Critics found the speech still too dark in tone. The Economist called it a departure from past administrations, and not that far from the “American carnage” language of his inaugural address, a philosophy that champions closed borders and that does not celebrate pluralistic values.
More positively, the Wall Street Journal said that, in his “affirmative defense of the western tradition,” Trump “offered the core of what could become a governing philosophy.” The editorial ended with this statement, “It was an important and, we hope, a defining speech — for the Trump presidency and for Donald Trump himself.”
That, like the question of what Trump truly thinks about Putin, Russia and the interference in American democracy, is the persistent puzzle about this president. Are speeches like the one he gave in Warsaw genuine expressions of his views or more the assembled consensus of his advisers? Are his views expressed best in readouts by advisers from his private discussions with the likes of Putin, or by what he says during his infrequent news conferences or his more frequent tweets? Answers still to come.