President Trump plans to focus heavily on disputes in Syria and Ukraine, two urgent challenges for the White House, during his meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to administration officials.
A formal outline for the meeting hasn’t yet emerged, and Trump’s advisers are looking for him to drive the topics of the sit-down, a top administration official said last week.
There is little expectation among Trump’s national security team that the President will bring up Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election during the meeting, according to administration officials and another person close to the White House.
Instead, he’s likely to engage Putin in a conversation about Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the increasingly tense military situation in the civil-war-torn nation. Trump is also likely to raise Russia’s actions in Ukraine, though Syria is at the top of his agenda, according to administration officials.
The meeting also will provide the two men an opportunity to size each other up in person for the first time, an interpersonal dynamic that officials said was likely to determine the direction of the session.
Asked if the President is going to bring up Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters last week “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the President wants to talk about.”
The unstructured agenda means Trump could ultimately decide to bring up the election hacking issue, officials said, though they conceded it was unlikely.
The open-endedness has prompted some concerns among members of Trump’s national security team, who fear his penchant for distraction and distaste for extensive preparation could allow the calculating Russian leader to drive the agenda instead.
Aides recall Trump’s oval office meeting with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, where Trump disclosed classified information that caused an intelligence-sharing row with Israel.
White House officials were also caught off-guard by the release of photos from that session by official Russian state media. Afterward, US officials told CNN they felt the Russians “tricked” them and lied about the parameters of the meeting.
This time around, officials hope to exert greater control of the session. But they say that largely depends on Trump himself.
Trump has maintained since he was a candidate that he’s looking to find areas of cooperation with Russia, and hopes to emerge from his meeting having identified where Washington and Moscow can work together, according to people involved in the meeting’s planning.
Trump has asked members of his team to continue preparing options for partnering with Russia, including some types of possible sanctions relief.
That includes the potential return of two properties in the United States to Russian control, according to two administration officials, though any such return would come as part of a larger set of agreements and contain certain conditions.
The administration officials said that no decision has yet been made to return the compounds or ease sanctions, and that any such steps were unlikely to accompany Trump’s meeting with Putin in Hamburg.