HELSINKI — President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin arrived Monday at Helsinki's presidential palace for a long-awaited summit, hours after Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations
The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, blaming “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The summit, which was being closely watched by rattled world capitals, was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump's presidential campaign. Undeterred, the American president was set to go face to face with Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.
Trump was greeted at the palace by Finland's president. The summit was starting later than scheduled because Putin arrived in Helsinki about a half hour late in another display of the Russian's leader famous lack of punctuality. Trump seemed to return the favor by waiting until Putin had arrived at the palace before leaving his hotel. Putin has been late for past meetings with the pope and British Queen, among many others.
Trump and his aides have repeatedly tried to lower expectations about what the summit will achieve. He told CBS News that he didn't “expect anything” from Putin, while his national security adviser said the U.S. wasn't looking for any “concrete deliverables.” Trump told reporters during a breakfast Monday with Finland's president that he thought the summit would go “fine.”
The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompted a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a “witch hunt.”
In his tweets, Trump continued to undermine the investigation and blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election in Trump's favor. He claimed Obama “was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn't happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it.”
The Obama administration did, in fact, take action, including confronting Putin in person as well as expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats the U.S. said were actually intelligence operatives and imposing new sanctions.
While Trump was eager for a made-for-TV moment that will dominate headlines like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the Kremlin's primary mission was simply to have the summit happen. Putin hopes the meeting, mere hours after he presided over the World Cup finals, will help him forge good personal ties with Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and Washington may be able to find common ground, such as Syria.
The two leaders first meet one on one in the Finnish presidential palace's opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor's throne room. The leaders will conclude by taking questions at a joint news conference.
Observers have raised concerns about the fact that the leaders will be alone during their first meeting, but for a pair of interpreters, meaning there will be no corroborating witnesses to accurately represent what was said during the conversation.
Putin will likely not be shooting for official recognition of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling U.S. sanctions, aware that the U.S. Congress would never allow such action. But he would welcome a symbolic end to Western protests over Crimea and Moscow's attempts to destabilize elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.
Trump unleashed his own attacks on those very institutions before arriving in Finland.
In an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, Trump described the European Union, a bloc of nations that includes many of America's closest allies, as a “foe.”
That attack on the alliance came on the heels of Trump's jarring appearance at a NATO summit in Brussels, where he harshly criticized traditional allies over “delinquent” defense spending only to later confirm his commitment to the military alliance that has long been a bulwark against Russian aggression.
“NATO is now strong & rich!” Trump wrote in a celebratory tweet Monday morning. During his breakfast, he said NATO had “never been more together” and said the summit had been “a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love.”
Prior to meeting Putin, who has cracked down on the free press, Trump unleashed fresh attacks on the news media, including from aboard Air Force One as it descended into Helsinki.
“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!” Trump tweeted. “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how to do is resist and obstruct!”
“Russia has done nothing to deserve us meeting them in this way,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute who specializes in Russia, Ukraine and disinformation. For Putin, she added, “not only is this a P.R. coup no matter what happens, Trump could say nothing and it would help to legitimize his regime.”
Hovering over Helsinki is the specter of the 2016 election interference and ongoing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
Trump said in Britain last week — another chaotic stop on his European tour — that he would raise the issue of election meddling with Putin even as he played down its impact.
“I don't think you'll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,’” said Trump, invoking a television detective. “There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”
Trump also said in the CBS interview that he had given no thought to asking Putin to extradite the dozen Russian military intelligence officers indicted this past week in on charges related to the hacking of Democratic targets.
But after being asked about that by his interviewer, Trump said “certainly I'll be asking about it” although extradition is highly unlikely. The U.S. doesn't have an extradition treaty with Moscow and can't force the Russians to hand over citizens. Russia's constitution also prohibits turning over citizens to foreign governments.
Putin is likely to strongly reaffirm his denial of any meddling and cast the U.S. charges as unfounded.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected last week's indictment as part of a “shameful comedy” staged by those in the U.S. who try to prevent the normalization of Russia-U.S. ties, arguing that it doesn't contain evidence to back the accusations.
On Syria, a possible deal could see Moscow helping mediate the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies from the areas alongside Syria's border with Israel — a diplomatic coup that would reflect Russia's carefully cultivated ties with both Israel and Iran.
While both Putin and Trump spoke about the need to discuss arms control issues, they are unlikely to make any quick deals. They may underline the importance of continuing the discussions, setting the stage for discussions on expert level.
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