The White House confirmed only on Tuesday that the most highly anticipated meeting of President Trump’s tenure — with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — will take place Friday in Germany. But among advisors mindful of the many pitfalls, both domestic and global, preparations have been intense for some time.
The meeting of the two presidents, whose mutual admiration during the 2016 American presidential campaign stoked allegations of collusion that are now at the center of a criminal investigation in Washington, is certain to be a highlight of a summit of the world’s 20 wealthiest countries starting Thursday in Hamburg.
With issues of North Korea’s continued nuclear threats, Syria, Islamic State and global terrorism on the agenda — and Trump’s political future on leaders’ minds — the eyes of the world are trained toward the two men’s meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit.
“I worry a little about this meeting because Putin is going to walk into the room very well prepared, and I’m not certain Trump will come into that room prepared,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and career diplomat who now is a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
Should Trump prove unprepared, that won’t be for lack of effort on the Americans’ side.
Leading up to his first face-to-face meeting with Putin, U.S. intelligence officials have prepared a detailed psychological profile of the long-serving Russian strongman, a former KGB officer who spent decades recruiting spies for the Soviet Union and mastered the art of bending people to his will.
The profile, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the preparations, is part of a thick binder prepared for Trump. The president often doesn’t read the usual briefing books and relies on in-person briefings, the officials said, so aides also have written a list of tweet-length sentences that summarize the main points Trump could bring up with Putin.
Yet senior aides have been mute on exactly what the two men will discuss. "There's no specific agenda," Trump's national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, told reporters. "It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about."
Trump should expect a strong backlash if he doesn’t tell Putin to keep out of future U.S. elections, warned the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), in a telephone interview.
"If he doesn't have the courage to raise the issue, Putin will conclude he can walk over our affairs and the president won't object,” Schiff said. “That would be a big mistake.”
Advisors including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis are trying to carefully script Trump’s interaction to head off any attempt by Putin to manipulate the encounter to his advantage, the U.S. officials said.
Putin is known to prepare assiduously for such high-stakes encounters with foreign counterparts, developing a command of policy objectives and honing a strategy to extract concessions, one U.S. official said.
“Putin was and is a KGB officer, and KGB officers are specialists at one thing: seduction, how to persuade others to do what you want,” said John Herbst, a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council and a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush.
“The odds are the atmosphere will be good because our president seems to love Putin, even though it is bad policy,” Herbst said.
Herbst, who as a career foreign service officer helped prepare presidents and secretaries of State before such high-stakes interactions, suggested that Putin will try to establish a personal connection with Trump, who is widely seen among his global counterparts as particularly susceptible to flattery. And Putin will want to convince Trump that Russia is not a danger and NATO is “not as important” as Trump’s advisors say, Herbst said.
The White House said Tuesday that Trump and Putin will have a "normal bilateral meeting" Friday afternoon during the G-20 summit. That implies a longer, more formal meeting than the conversation he will have with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, as well as other "pull aside" meetings with the leaders of Mexico, Japan and several other countries that day.
Trump is also scheduled to meet with China’s President Xi Jinping at the gathering and is sure to keep pressing Xi to use China’s considerable influence over North Korea to get Pyongyang to cease its nuclear program. Trump could well raise North Korea with Putin too amid evidence that Russian firms have been selling arms and oil to the rogue state.
The session will be the first formal conversation between Putin and a U.S. president in nearly two years, since the Obama administration moved to isolate Moscow after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference elsewhere in Ukraine.
It comes amid tension over Moscow's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and its support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A special counsel is directing an FBI investigation into whether people associated with Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to help Trump by hurting Hillary Clinton's chances of being elected.
Besides preparing Trump for the Putin dialogue, administration officials are seeking to bolster his leverage with Putin going into the talks. The president’s schedule calls for him to speak on Thursday in Warsaw and to meet with leaders of other Eastern European countries in an effort to highlight the U.S. commitment to stand with them to counter Russia’s efforts to regain influence there.
Trump will deliver his speech Thursday in front of a monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation. During the uprising, the Soviet army did not aid the Poles and many blamed Moscow for standing by as the Nazis crushed the rebellion and emptied the city.
Trump’s initial stop in Poland also suggests at least implicitly the continued significance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, contrary to his denigration of the alliance as “obsolete” while campaigning. Russian and European leaders will be watching closely to see whether he underscores the U.S. commitment to protect other NATO states under Article 5 of the alliance’s founding charter.
Defense Secretary Mattis called the U.S. obligation “ironclad” during a speech in Germany last week. But Trump’s failure to endorse it during a NATO conference in Brussels in May deeply unsettled allies, though he subsequently voiced support at a news conference in Washington.
Trump’s show of solidarity with Eastern Europe going into the meeting with Putin could complicate his stated desire to usher in a new era of good U.S.-Russian relations.
Putin is expected to look for ways to further undermine NATO and exploit divisions within, such as the tension between Trump and Merkel evident at the NATO summit and after Trump’s disavowal of the Paris accord on climate change. She told reporters in Germany that the G-20 meetings would be “thorny.”
Russian officials have also made overtures to the Trump administration about regaining two properties previously used by Russian intelligence services: a mansion on Long Island, N.Y., and a large house in Maryland. The Obama administration demanded the Russian government vacate both properties in December and kicked out 35 alleged spies in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Audiences in the U.S. and Russia will be watching closely to read any signs that one president got the better of the other, said Pifer, the former ambassador.
Seemingly small things could make a huge difference.
When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak met with Trump in the Oval Office in May, only a photographer from the Russian state news agency Tass was allowed to take pictures. To the chagrin of the White House, which expected the photos would not be shared, the images were released and showed Trump and the two Russians smiling and apparently laughing together — a day after Trump had fired FBI Director James B. Comey out of frustration about the Russia investigation.
“My fear would be Putin comes out and says something that on the face of it looks like a pretty good deal,” Pifer said, “but when you look at the pieces, there are some hidden downsides that don’t appear until after the president has said yes.”