Trump Invites Putin To D.C. For A Second Summit
The Trump Administration is inviting Vladimir Putin to Washington, D.C. for a second summit in the fall. What could possibly go wrong?
Yesterday, the White House announced that the President had invited Russian President to Washington, D.C. for a second summit conference in just four months, and perhaps the most interesting part about is how senior members of the Administration found out about it:
WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to visit Washington in the fall, the White House said Thursday — an invitation that stunned the nation’s top intelligence official, who said he was still groping for details of what the two leaders had discussed in their encounter this week in Helsinki, Finland.
“Say that again,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, replied when Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news while interviewing him at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “O.K.,” Mr. Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. “That’s going to be special.”
The announcement came as the White House spent a third day trying to explain statements made by Mr. Trump after the Helsinki meeting, and as uncertainty spread throughout the government about whether he had reached agreements with Mr. Putin on Syria and Ukraine, leaving his military and diplomatic corps in the dark.
Yielding to intense criticism, Mr. Trump rejected a proposal by Mr. Putin for Russia to question American citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael A. McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted on charges of trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Two hours after the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued that reversal, she said on Twitter that Mr. Trump had asked his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, to invite Mr. Putin, framing the decision as part of a dialogue that began in Helsinki and would continue at lower levels until the Russian president comes to Washington.
Beyond saying the meeting would be in the fall, the White House did not announce a date. That means Mr. Trump could meet Mr. Putin again before the midterm elections, giving him a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.
But to Mr. Coats, who has been at odds with Mr. Trump about whether Russia meddled in the election, the prospect of another one-on-one encounter was clearly rattling. He said he would “look for a different way of doing it,” and expressed frustration that Mr. Trump had opted to meet Mr. Putin in Helsinki with only their interpreters in the room.
“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,” Mr. Coats said, “I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”
Mr. Coats said he expected that the details of the meeting would trickle out in the coming weeks. But with Mr. Trump not giving a full account, some officials worry that the Russians now control the narrative. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Mr. Putin told diplomats that he proposed to Mr. Trump holding a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Inundated with questions, the White House was either unable or unwilling to respond. A spokesman for the National Security Council said: “Presidents Trump and Putin discussed a wide range of national security issues in Helsinki. The U.S. position on Ukraine remains the same.”
(The Justice Department, for its part, described on Thursday its plan for countering cyberattacks and foreign influence campaigns, like Russia’s effort to intervene in the 2016 election.)
In a tweet Thursday morning, Mr. Trump said he looked forward to a second meeting with Mr. Putin “so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.” He listed Ukraine, Israel’s security, nuclear proliferation, trade, North Korea, and Middle East peace.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the announcement of a second Putin summit was the fact that it apparently came as a surprise to Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence, who was being interviewed in Aspen, Colorado at the time the news broke:
The nation’s intelligence chief continued on Thursday to harden his warnings about the cyberthreat from Russia and expressed surprise at hearing that President Trump planned to invite its leader, President Vladimir V. Putin, to the White House, but promised to deliver a candid assessment to Mr. Trump about the dangers of such a visit.
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, appeared genuinely astonished during a national security conference in Aspen, Colo., when he was told that the White House announced plans to invite Mr. Putin to Washington.
“Say that again?” Mr. Coats asked Andrea Mitchell of NBC, the event moderator, before uttering an exaggerated and drawn-out “O.K.” He added, “That is going to be special.”
In a follow-up question, Mr. Coats acknowledged his surprise. “We will be looking at what the potential intelligence risks could possibly be, and we will make that information available to the president,” he said.\
Mr. Coats’s appearance was the latest in a string of episodes in recent days in which he has unexpectedly shown a willingness to contradict Mr. Trump’s on-and-off skepticism about the evidence that Moscow intervened in the 2016 election.
A confrontation could be brewing. Mr. Coats has been taking an ever-tougher line on Russia, and as he continues to ring the warning bell, current and former officials have wondered whether he intends to stay long in his job or if Mr. Trump will allow him to remain.
Mr. Coats said he had no intention of leaving. “As long as I am able to have the ability to seek the truth, speak the truth, I am on board,” he said during the question-and-answer session at the Aspen Security Forum.
For many in Washington, the emergence of Mr. Coats as the most prominent administration official willing to push back against the president, gently but repeatedly, has been a surprise. As a two-time Republican senator from Indiana, Mr. Coats was known for eschewing the flashy, focusing on pushing his agenda with back-room conversations, not news-making speeches.
But he was not alone in his skepticism over a White House invitation for Mr. Putin. Current and former senior American intelligence officials expressed deep concern and skepticism. “It seems this is a reward for bad behavior,” said James R. Clapper Jr., Mr. Coats’s predecessor as director of national intelligence.
Mr. Clapper said that bringing Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. chief, into the White House would pose stiff intelligence risks. “This will be a complex intelligence and counterintelligence challenge,” he said.
Mr. Coats also said he was not fully aware of what Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin discussed in their one-on-one meeting on Monday in Helsinki, Finland, but that he hopes to learn soon, a remarkable admission for a cabinet-level national security official.
And asked whether Mr. Trump should avoid a similar one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin if he comes to the White House, Mr. Coats said he would “look for a different way of doing it.” White House officials said on Thursday that Mr. Trump planned to invite Mr. Putin to visit in the fall.
Here’s the Tweet from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announcing the proposed visit:
In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) July 19, 2018
And here’s the video of the moment that Director Coats was advised of that Tweet:
Given how much of a disaster the Helsinki Summit was, there are really two possibilities regarding how a second Trump-Putin would go. The first, of course, is that things go about the same way that the first summit did and Trump walks away looking like an idiot who got played yet again. The second is that the President somehow manages to pull himself together and pull off a summit meeting that doesn’t look like a complete disaster. Taking into account not only the events of this week but also his recent performances on the world stage in other places such as the G-7 Summit in Canada, the NATO Summit in Brussels, and his visit just last week to the United Kingdom, the answer seems to be rather obvious. A Trump-Putin meeting this fall will most likely end up being as pointless and potentially disastrous as the Helsinki Summit was, especially since it seems clear that there won’t be any so-called “deliverables” coming out of the summit in the form of constructive agreements that would justify the honor of a meeting at the White House and, potentially at least, a State Dinner in Putin’s honor.
To pick just one example, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had a summit meeting in Washington, D.C. in November of 1987, but that wasn’t their first meeting (that took place in Geneva in 1985), or even their second (that took place in Rekyavik in 1986.) The Washington Summit was the third meeting between the two men, and it came after years of negotiations at lower levels at a number of levels and included substantive things such as the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that resulted in the removal of nuclear weapons from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as significant progress on issues such as chemical weapons and conventional arms as well as significant progress on the START Treaty that would eventually be signed during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush. Trump, on the other hand, appears to be inviting Putin for a second summit in the nation’s capital for, well, no reason whatsoever.
On another note, it strikes me that the timing of this invitation is really quite odd from a political point of view. While it’s been only a few days, the early polling in the wake of the Helsinki Summit shows that Trump is getting overwhelmingly negative reviews for his performance on Monday. It seems unwise to me to risk that something similar could happen so close to the midterm elections, especially given the fact that there are already indications that Republicans aren’t going to do well in November. Furthermore, inviting Putin to the United States prior to the midterms would arguably just serve to remind Americans of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the question of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, something that I doubt Republicans would be all that eager to do. It’s possible, of course, that the Trump White House is shooting for a date after the elections, but even that won’t guarantee that Democrats and the media won’t make an issue out of it in the elections in November.
As a general rule, of course, there’s nothing wrong with world leaders meeting one-on-one. As Winston Churchill once put it, it’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. At the same time, though, it’s also generally been the case that these meetings typically only end up being fruitful when they built on a history of lower-level negotiations and agreements that allow both leaders to use such meetings to achieve something other than just appearing before the cameras. Rather than doing that, though, this President appears to view summits as mere photo opportunities that don’t actually accomplish anything. This is especially true when meeting with leaders of adversarial nations. We saw it in Singapore last month. We saw it in Helsinki on Monday. And, in all likelihood, we’ll see it again in Washington in the fall. As with those first two meetings, the United States won’t gain anything from the meeting, and the adversary will gain everything.