The Top 5 Takeaways From the Trump-Putin Summit

Presidents Trump and Putin concluded their much-anticipated summit in Helsinki on Monday.

If anything, the summit and its aftermath has exceeded its billing – reaction has been extremely critical and Trump is facing fire from all sides of the political spectrum. For instance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and said, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

Even Trump allies such as Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan have been critical of the president. Amidst all the brouhaha, here are the top five takeaways from the Helsinki summit.

1. Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation got a new lease of life.

Recent opinion polls have revealed declining public support for Mueller’s probe. According to a Politico–Morning Consult poll released in June, 36 percent had an unfavourable view of the investigation. A Fox News poll this month found that public approval for the Mueller probe is now at 48 percent – falling from 55 percent a month ago.

In this milieu, during the joint press conference with Putin, Trump was asked about Russian interference. He responded:

“My people came to me… they said they think it’s Russia… I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Trump then added, “But I have confidence in both parties.”

This false equivalence between US law enforcement and Russia will energise the investigation and provide fresh oxygen to the theory that Trump is beholden to Putin. Trump’s attacks on Mueller casting blame on the investigation for the poor relationship with Russia will prove counter-productive. It will take a lot for Trump to recover from this.

Special counsel Robert Mueller (2nd L) leaves after a closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee June 21, 2017. (Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
2. Personality-cult based negotiations don’t work against adversaries such as Russia.

Trump insisted on a one-on-one meeting with Putin with just two translators present. His actions indicated that he distrusted his advisers and possessed great confidence in his personal ability to strike a deal with Putin. This was exposed as a folly by Putin, who was better prepared and had a clear negotiating strategy. Putin dispensed with any pretense at charm and stuck to cold realism – stating the relationship was not about personal trust but that he and Trump were both representing each country’s “interests.” Whilst Trump did not engage in any flattery of Putin – unlike his press conference with Kim – he appeared to invest more in the personal connection than Putin. Trump’s miscalculation here is fundamental – there is no need for Putin to invest in a personal connection because he has dealt with four US presidents and expects to stay in power long after Trump. Whilst US presidents come and go, Putin’s strategic interests are entrenched. Hence there was no breakthrough on the main issues – nuclear disarmament, Iran, trade, cyber-attacks, sanctions, Crimea, Ukraine, North Korea, nerve-agent attacks in the UK, and NATO.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
3. Trump’s obsession with the 2016 election indicated by repeated statements about Hillary, the FBI’s failure to get her server, “witch hunt,” Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Obama, etc., denied him political capital from the summit.

Instead, he appeared defensive and focused solely on domestic politics when the summit was an opportunity for international leadership. And in undermining his own staff and conducting domestic politics in front of the world’s cameras, he made Putin look like a statesman. He also appeared to fall into Putin’s trap – labeling Putin’s offer of help in investigating Russian election interference by interrogating Russian military officers as “incredible.” And by missing out on opportunities to hold Putin accountable in front of the world’s media, Trump undermined his own tough-guy persona.

Trump Says There Was No Collusion Between US and Russia

4. Trump has greater regard for leaders who employ military force than even traditional allies with whom the US may share historical and cultural links.

Contrast his treatment of Putin and Kim Jong-Un with his recent chastisement of Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Justin Trudeau. Or his earlier disdain for Turnbull. Trump’s international relations doctrine should be viewed primarily through the prism of power. Commercial interests come second. Other considerations fare poorly. If you are a leader of a country lacking either attribute, Trump is unlikely to be impressed.

5. The only silver-lining from the summit may be in Syria, where Trump claimed there may be “shared interests” with Putin.

If any progress is made, it may be owed more to the diplomacy of Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump emphatically said that the security of Israel had to be assured and indicated that he would cooperate with Putin in Syria to ensure this. Putin also expressed a desire to end the humanitarian crisis – again surprising coming from him rather than Trump. If Putin follows through and strikes a deal with Trump, Assad and Iran may have reasons for concern.

In the end analysis, there are two parts to what happened yesterday – the closed-door meeting and the public press conference. We know a lot about the second part, but virtually nothing about the first part. As nature abhors a vacuum, the actual meeting is being interpreted through the lens of the press conference. Whether this hits the mark or not, only time will tell.