A senior member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet once told me a revealing story about Vladimir Putin. Each meeting, the official said, began the same way: Putin would reach into his suit jacket pocket, remove notecards listing perceived American sins against Russia, and read them one by one. Only then would the substantive discussions begin.
That’s a key detail to keep in mind in the runup to President Trump’s meeting with Putin tomorrow, which will mark the first time they will sit down together in person. Trump’s own aides say he doesn’t have a formal agenda or plan for the meeting. That would be a problem for any president given that Putin will be meticulously well-prepared and equipped with specific grievances and demands. But it could be a crippling mistake for Trump, who lacks foreign policy experience, consistency, honesty, or coherence.
Trump was always at risk of being outplayed by Putin, who holds absolute control over his country and is a master tactician. For reasons that are difficult to discern, the president isn’t taking steps that would make it easier for him to keep pace with Putin. Instead, he’s taking steps almost guaranteed to make it easier for the Russian.
Putin knows the art of the deal better than Trump
Putin’s wish list is clear. He wants the US to lift the sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea, give him a freer hand in Syria, continue to distance itself from NATO and Washington’s European allies, and — potentially above all else — allow his election interference to go unpunished.
Put a different way, an experienced and ruthless Russian leader is coming to a pivotal meeting with a clear plan and a clear agenda. An inexperienced and autocrat-loving American president isn’t planning to bring one of his own. That’s a recipe for serious trouble.
My personal alarm bells started ringing Thursday during a briefing by Trump’s increasingly embattled and unsteady national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.
“We have no specific agenda,” McMaster said about Trump’s plans for the trip, including his meeting with Putin. “It’s whatever the president wants to talk about.”
And that’s a potentially enormous problem given that we very literally have no clue what that will be.
Trump is under enormous legal and political pressure because of the array of FBI, congressional, and Senate investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Russia. Trump denies any wrongdoing, but continues to add fuel to the scandal by refusing to take steps to punish Russia for its election meddling or to unequivocally accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow worked to help him win the White House.
Instead, Trump and his aides continue to baffle and infuriate even many Republicans by opposing new sanctions on Russia and publicly arguing that they see Russia as an ally in the fight against ISIS. (It isn’t; Moscow mainly bombs groups battling to oust Bashar al-Assad, a close Putin ally.) The Trump administration also hems and haws about its commitment to NATO, an institution Putin has been trying to weaken for decades.
Putin sees the US as an enemy. It’s not clear Trump gets that.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency released a report detailing Putin’s belief that the US is trying to overthrow his government.
As my colleague Alex Ward summarized it, here’s a fuller list of the DIA’s conclusions about Putin’s mindset:
Russia believes the US wants regime change in Moscow; helped spark the Arab Spring; and is responsible for the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, and the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
This is the first time in two decades the DIA released a report like this to the public. It stopped once the Soviet Union fell in 1991 — and now the report is back. That’s a bad sign, as the Pentagon’s top intelligence agency feels the need to publish a report it used to release during the Cold War.
It’s also a bad sign that it’s virtually certain Trump won’t read it, be briefed on it, or allow it to shape his approach to Russia. Despite months of questions, Trump has only publicly called out Russia for its election meddling once, and even then it was halting and incomplete.
"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump said on January 11, nine days before his inaugural. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he wasn’t sure whether Trump believed Russia hacked the election because “I have not sat down and talked to him about that specifically.”
Neither did former FBI Director Jim Comey, who testified recently that Trump repeatedly asked him about the FBI’s investigation into him and his administration — but never asked him about the broader Russian attempt to hack the US elections.
And when asked on Thursday for a yes-or-no answer to the question about Russian meddling, Trump told reporters in Warsaw, “I think it was Russia, and it could have been other people in other countries.”
“Nobody really knows,” he added.
A normal American president, given a chance to press Russia on the multitude of ways Moscow is trying to harm the US at home and abroad, would make sure he was finally briefed and prepared to confront Putin. Trump is inexplicably choosing a different path, and it’s an unforced error that could be risky not just for his presidency, but for the national security of the US in the months and years to come.