Leaders of the two greatest nuclear powers on earth will come together for their first official summit in Helsinki Monday. This could only be — to paraphrase President Donald Trump — a good thing, right?
So what is it about this meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that’s so unsettling? Well, for one thing we’re still learning about Russia’s massive cyber and disinformation attack on American democracy in the 2016 presidential election (and the threat of further assaults during the upcoming mid-term elections). The latest revelation came Friday from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic political organizations and the Clinton campaign.
It’s a topic Trump characterized to a Washington Post reporter this week as, “your favorite question about meddling.” Evidently not Trump’s favorite question.
“He may deny it,” Trump said Thursday about Putin’s role behind attacks on the U.S. political system. “I mean, it’s one of those things. All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.'” All you can say? What about threatening sanctions or America’s ample capacity to likewise engage in cyber-warfare if Putin doesn’t stop it?
It’s unclear how seriously Trump will actually raise this vital issue. What is clear is that with each round of new indictments, the stakes for our democracy grow higher.
So far as other issues between the United States and Russia, Trump has hit all the right notes regarding what he intends to discuss, although with frustratingly little detail about what he’s seeking. Trump said he’ll raise the issue of Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and forced annexation of Crimea. But in what context? Trump won’t say, and this after some disquieting remarks during the G-7 conference in June where he seemingly excused Putin’s takeover citing Crimea’s Russian-speaking population.
Syria, where Putin supports a brutal dictator, and nuclear proliferation are also on Trump’s list.
But Americans will have no honest idea what Trump actually discusses with Putin during at least the initial summit phase. That first meeting will be without aides or note-takers, an unusual circumstance for a summit meeting. There will be no official record of what is said or promised.
It will be impossible to gauge whether Putin, a former KGB agent, employs flattery and praise to cajole concessions, perhaps lauding Trump’s divisive rhetoric at the recent NATO conference or his support for Brexit in a London press interview, a referendum Moscow surreptitiously worked to influence.
How these two men relate to one another will be hidden. And there’s a troubling history between Trump and Russia. It bares remembering that prior to the 2016 election, when Trump’s bankruptcies left him unable to borrow money, he secured hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources — his sons said as much — and from Deutsche Bank when that institution was involved in Russian money-laundering.
And then there’s the inescapable issue of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into links between Moscow and Trump’s presidential campaign. Five defendants have already pleaded guilty.
In light of all this, Americans can be forgiven if they’re a little nervous about what actually will transpire Monday in Helsinki.
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