President Trump’s top aides have been hemming and hawing for days about whether Trump would use today’s high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to hammer Moscow for its election meddling. It seems he did so — but in a way that makes the problem worse, not better.
That’s because Trump appears to have accepted Putin’s denials of any election interference at face value, even though the entire US intelligence community believes the Kremlin mounted a sophisticated campaign to help him win the White House.
And the damage doesn’t stop there: According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Trump told Putin that some in the United States were “exaggerating” how much Russia affected the election’s outcome — effectively dragging Moscow into Trump’s partisan wars here at home.
This development is the most interesting and important to come out of the Trump-Putin meeting. Effectively, Russia got what it wanted out of this encounter — namely, the appearance that the Trump administration accepts that the Kremlin didn’t interfere in the election.
Hanging over the entire meeting was the question of whether Congress would pass sanctions on Russia as punishment for its election meddling. Trump noted the possibility that they may be enacted soon, but also told the Russian leader that he’d like to move past that issue. “The president took note of the actions that have been discussed by the Congress,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. “But I think the two presidents — I think rightly — focused on how do we move forward?”
So Putin got Trump to buy his fake news on election interference and to offer a weak endorsement of upcoming sanctions.
Trump — the dealmaker — got outplayed by Putin.
Preparation matters. The problem is that Trump wasn’t prepared.
It goes to show how much preparation matters. Trump barely had any notes or talking points heading into the meeting (he also didn’t have a hotel room, by the way). Putin, by contrast, came in ready to go as he famously does. My Vox colleague Yochi Dreazen explains:
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.
After the meeting, it seems like Putin got what he was looking for. That was always the likely outcome, anyway.
As the New York Times reported, Russia figured Putin would emerge as a winner regardless of what actually took place at the meeting. One option was that nothing of substance would come out of the talks, after which the Kremlin could paint Trump as a weak leader. The other was that Trump agreed to work with Russia, making the US president look feckless because of how Russia has defied America in Ukraine, in Syria, and during the election.
“It is a win-win situation for Putin,” Andrei V. Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Times.
It also didn’t help that Trump’s focus was elsewhere. Early this morning, Trump tweeted that “everyone” at the summit was talking about why former Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta hadn’t handed over the Democratic National Committee’s server to the FBI and CIA (that seems, to be generous, highly unlikely).
Podesta, who is in the middle of a cross-country trip with his wife, chimed in after the fact, calling Trump a “whack job” and telling him to get his “head in the game.”
That said, Trump and Putin came away with one agreement: a ceasefire in Syria’s southwest. That’s all well and good, but most of the fighting is in Syria’s east and north — particularly in the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa. Much of the country’s southwest has already been flattened, so it’s not readily apparent what the ceasefire will achieve.
Still, what most will take out of the first face-to-face encounter between the two men is that America’s leader bought the Kremlin’s denials of election meddling, facts be damned.
Trump, in other words, may have done more damage by meeting with Putin than he would have done by staying home.