Trump administration officials were unable to immediately clarify on Tuesday what President Trump’s Helsinki summit will yield for foreign and military policy, underscoring the confusion caused by the president’s improvisational style and embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The day after Trump huddled with Putin in an extended one-on-one meeting, the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies struggled to publicly reconcile Trump’s friendly treatment of the Russian president with government-wide policies identifying Russia as a chief threat to U.S. security.
Further complicating efforts to digest the summit was a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday that said Moscow was ready to implement “agreements on international security” reached by the leaders.
The White House has not announced any deals, and spokesmen in Washington said they were unaware of new accords.
At the State Department, the bureaus responsible for policies involving Syria and the New START Treaty, which seeks to limit nuclear-capable armaments, said they had heard nothing about agreements between Trump and Putin. Spokesmen noted that it often takes several days for details of top-level meetings to trickle down.
While such delays are common, senior agency officials are typically looped into presidential decisions involving their portfolios, even if they are not present for the discussions where those decisions are made.
Michael Carpenter, who specializes in Russia and worked at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said the lack of clarity about what the leaders may have agreed to — if anything — was a problem for agencies trying to implement foreign policy.
Carpenter said the Russian Defense Ministry’s reference to a U.S.-Russian understanding “sounds vague, as I’m sure the discussion was.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who attended a larger meeting after Trump’s solo encounter with Putin, returned from Helsinki the same night and had no public appearances Tuesday.
Despite requests for him to talk to reporters about the summit, Pompeo made no statements.
The top U.S. diplomat, who headed the CIA until moving to the State Department this spring, has described Russia as a danger to the United States and said it should be held responsible for “malign activities.” He has also backed intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meanwhile, did not attend the summit and has not appeared in public this week. Pentagon spokesmen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Earlier this year, Mattis unveiled a Pentagon strategy identifying Russia as a chief threat to U.S. military power. He, like other officials, have pointed to Moscow’s steps to modernize its nuclear arsenal, efforts to “shatter “ the NATO alliance and actions in places including Crimea and Syria. Alarm has intensified in Washington since the apparent nerve agent attack in Britain that officials there blamed on Russia.
Alarm has intensified in Washington since the apparent nerve agent attack in Britain that officials there blamed on Russia.
“The rest of the government understands completely, to a man and a woman practically, that Russia is the Number One threat, and can see with their own eyes Trump’s unwillingness to comprehend that fact,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration official who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “So what do they do?”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Trump’s desire to engage with Russia could benefit the United States if it defused tensions.
“What we have seen with Trump is that he often has more extreme instincts than he actually translates into policy, especially in foreign policy,” O’Hanlon said. But, he added: “He makes you nervous, though, because you don’t know if he’s given away the store.”