President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (EPA)
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 on Friday in Germany. But among advisers 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 election 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 previously spent decades recruiting spies for the Soviet Union and mastered the art of bending people to his will.
The Putin 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 adviser, 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 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.”
Advisers including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James 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 advisers say, Herbst said.
The White House said Tuesday that Trump and Putin will have a "normal bilateral meeting" Friday afternoon during the G20 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 G20 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 following 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 Syrian government of 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 itself, 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.