Commentary: Five Questions on the Trump-Putin summit

In a joint press conference that followed Monday’s closed-door summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the U.S. president refused to blame the Russian president for any meddling in the 2016 presidential election, accepted Putin’s denial of interference – and cast doubt on the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, just two days after a federal grand jury indicted 12 Russian military officers for conspiring to interfere with the election.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Trump’s Helsinki performance drew criticism from Republican lawmakers such as Senators John McCain, Jeff Flake and Rob Corker, who denounced the president’s comments. On Twitter former CIA director John Brennan called Trump’s behavior “nothing short of treasonous.”

Steven Pifer, a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union, spoke with Reuters editor Helen Coster about the summit.

“Following Trump’s bull-in-the-china-shop diplomacy at NATO and in London and his obsequious and embarrassing performance in Helsinki,” said Pifer, “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. foreign policy interests would have been better served had Trump stayed home.

COSTER: What was your main takeaway from the summit?

PIFER: Based on the press conference, Vladimir Putin has every reason to be happy. He got a formal summit with President Trump, which helps his spin that Russia is no longer isolated. He did not appear to give on any major issue, and Trump declined to challenge Russian actions. The president, at least in public, failed to criticize Russian aggression against Ukraine and did not put down a marker that Russian meddling in U.S. politics is unacceptable and, if continued, would result in U.S. retaliation. One can only hope that things went better in the actual discussions, but it’s not clear there is any reason to believe that.

COSTER: What do you think of the fact that Trump took Putin’s side against the U.S. intelligence community?

PIFER: Trump’s acceptance of Putin’s denial of election-meddling over the considered judgment of the U.S. intelligence community (and the growing number of indictments of individual Russians) is astonishing. He gave the Kremlin no reason not to continue such interference in U.S. election processes: it’s been successful (from their point of view), the costs are minimal, and the U.S. president apparently does not believe it is happening. Why not continue?

COSTER: What do you expect to be the reaction among U.S. allies – in public and in private?

PIFER: U.S. allies will likely keep their views to themselves publicly, but they have to be dismayed in private. Contrast Trump’s reluctance in Helsinki to criticize Putin or any Russian misbehavior with his eager readiness to criticize allies [at last week’s NATO summit] in Brussels, particularly Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, over defense spending, plus his London interview in which he put the European Union at the top of his list of foes of the United States.

COSTER: So much of diplomacy happens in small steps and behind the scenes. What steps of that nature might have come out of today’s meeting, and what do you expect for U.S.-Russia relations going forward?

PIFER: Hopefully, the summit will produce follow-up dialogues that might yield some progress. Putin opened the door for discussions on arms control, including on extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which would be in the U.S. interest. We will have to see what comes, but it would be wise to be patient and keep expectations modest.

COSTER: A lot of people are stating that Trump’s comments today give Putin a blank check in terms of his future behavior. What do you think?

PIFER: Genuine improvement in U.S.-Russian relations will require at least some change in problematic Russian policies, such as aggression against Ukraine, interference in U.S. domestic politics and involvement in Syria. It does not appear that Trump gave Putin a reason to change any of those policies, so Russian misbehavior will likely continue.

About the Author

Helen Coster is a senior editor at Reuters. Prior to joining Reuters, she was a senior writer at Forbes magazine. @hcoster

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.