On the eve of his first formal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump on Sunday described the European Union as a trading “foe,” further unnerving some of America’s closest partners after disruptive visits to NATO headquarters and Britain.
Trump has not said what he hopes to gain from four hours of scheduled talks — including 90 minutes one on one without any note-takers or aides — with Russia’s strongman early Monday in Finland’s main presidential palace, a grand, canary-yellow building across from Helsinki’s bustling harbor.
“I don’t expect anything,” he told “CBS Evening News” shortly before he left Scotland for Helsinki. “I frankly don’t expect — I go in with very low expectations.”
Many foreign policy experts have similar expectations. But they worry that Trump’s lack of preparations, his disparagement of U.S. allies in Europe, and his oft-expressed hopes of building a personal friendship with Putin could backfire, leaving Washington and its allies at a disadvantage on a host of security concerns.
Trump said he might press Putin to hand over a dozen Russian military intelligence officers who were charged in a detailed federal indictment Friday for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, adding that he “hadn’t thought about” it. The U.S. has no extradition treaty with Moscow.
"Certainly, I'll be asking about it,” Trump said. “But again, this was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration." U.S. intelligence officials have warned that they expect the Kremlin to interfere in the November midterm elections and the 2020 race.
Trump instead blamed the special counsel investigation into Russia’s cyber attacks for undercutting his attempts to improve ties with Moscow. “I think we're greatly hampered by this whole witch hunt that's going on in the United States,” he said.
He also criticized what he described as weak security by the Democratic National Committee, blaming the victim for the systematic Russian penetration of DNC computer networks and theft of tens of thousands of emails during the campaign.
“I think the DNC should be ashamed of themselves, for allowing themselves to be hacked,” he said.
Firing off tweets from Air Force One as he headed to Helsinki, Trump appeared focused on boasting of his prowess as a dealmaker — and complaining he is a victim of unfair news coverage that doesn’t acknowledge his achievements.
“Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia. over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough – that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition! Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people.”
Trump’s summit with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un last month in Singapore also was on the president’s mind, perhaps as a sore point. In recent weeks, he has shrugged off criticism that he vastly overstated the outcome of their talks when he asserted that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat.
On Sunday, the president tweeted that “the Fake News” was ignoring the success of his summit with Kim.
U.S. and North Korean military officials met on the inter-Korean border on Sunday to discuss the return of remains of U.S. service personnel killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, as Kim promised. But there’s no evidence that Kim’s government has made any moves to denuclearize, the U.S. goal of the summit.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, has said he expects Putin, a former KGB officer, to bolster a sense of camaraderie with Trump by sympathizing with him over the perfidy of his perceived enemies.
Trump’s aggrieved tweets en route to the summit, denouncing Democrats and the news media, appeared to provide Putin with a ready-made gambit for offering up sympathy.
Trump left a trail of diplomatic wreckage across Europe in recent days after contentious meetings with or comments about some of America’s closest allies, the backbone of the postwar institutions and alliances that Washington long has championed.
He upended the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels by bashing Germany and threatening to leave the 29-nation military alliance if allies don’t sharply increase military spending. He then trashed British Prime Minister Theresa May — and praised her rival — in a tabloid interview as he arrived for a four-day visit to Britain.
Trump’s latest comments suggest he sees little difference between America’s allies and its adversaries, an unconventional approach to foreign affairs.
Asked by CBS anchor Jeff Glor to name America’s biggest foe globally, Trump cited the European Union first — ahead of Russia, China or Iran and North Korea, which he didn't mention at all.
"Well, I think we have a lot of foes,” he said. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn't think of the European Union but they're a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn't mean they are bad. It doesn't mean anything. It means that they are competitive.”
That drew a swift riposte Sunday from Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who invoked a trademark Trump phrase, tweeting: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”
In another interview, taped Friday before the president left London for his golf resort in Scotland, anchor Piers Morgan asked Trump if he believed Putin is a "dictator."
"I assume he probably is," Trump said. "But I could name others also. Look, if we can get along with Russia that's a good thing."
He offered a similar defense for the North Korean ruler after Morgan called Kim, who heads a police state, a “ruthless dictator.”
“Sure he is, he’s ruthless, but so are others,” Trump said. “I mean, I could name plenty of others that we deal with that you don’t say the same thing about. I mean plenty of the people that I deal with are pretty ruthless people.”
Several of Trump's top advisors, appearing on Sunday talk shows, did little to clarify Trump's thinking heading into the sit-down with Putin.
Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he didn't know if Trump would seek extradition of the Russians accused of violating federal law in the 2016 election.
But Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, dismissed the idea as “silly.”
“For the president to demand something that isn’t going to happen, puts the president in a weak position and I think the president has made it very clear he intends to approach this discussion from a position of strength,” Bolton said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), often one of Trump’s staunchest supporters, said the president should make a forceful case for bringing the 12 Russians to justice for their cyberassaults during the election.
“That is an attack on all of us,” Gowdy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He said the “first request” to Putin should be to “tell us which airport” the accused officials could be picked up from.
Democrats warned that Putin might extract concessions from Trump, much as Kim did during their summit in Singapore last month.
"There’s a menu of things to be concerned about: that he might withdraw American troops from Syria, that he might cancel military exercises with our regional allies, that he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said on "Fox News Sunday."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he expected a “disastrous approach” from Trump on the topic of election interference, citing the president’s steadfast refusal to condemn Russia’s malign activities.
“He’s sitting down with a man who just ordered intervention in our election, and rewarding him for doing so,” Schiff said on CNN’s “State of the Nation.” “There’s no way that brings about a successful result.”
Stokols reported from Helsinki and King reported from Washington.