President Donald Trump likes to be alone with his fellow world leaders (including the occasional despot) – and he wanted some alone time with Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, when the two met for a summit in Helsinki on Monday.
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That decision will be much-debated and questioned after Trump and Putin emerged from the meeting and stunningly appeared to be almost on the same page about Russian meddling in the US election. Trump would not even side with US intelligence agencies who have unanimously said Russia tried to influence the election. And Putin admitted he had a preference for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
A US official laid out three reasons for a one-on-one meeting, conducted behind closed doors with just the two principals and some translators, to CNN’s Kevin Liptak.
The reasons are these, according to Liptak:
- Trump requested alone time to better personally assess Putin and develop a leader-to-leader relationship (along the same lines of why he requested to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un alone in Singapore).
- Trump has previously expressed anger at leaks coming from his meetings with foreign leaders and told aides he doesn’t want sensitive information leaking from his meeting with Putin.
- Trump doesn’t want aides, who may take a harder line on Russia, undercutting or interrupting him in his conversation with Putin.
The first of these – that Trump thinks his own gut feel of a man is superior to all others – is not a new thing.
Before he met with Kim to rough out an agreement to negotiate a future denuclearization by North Korea, Trump told reporters he’d know after meeting him mano-a-mano if Kim was serious within a minute.
“That’s a good question. How long will it take? I think within the first minute I’ll know,” Trump said.
Pushed, he elaborated exactly how.
“Just my touch, my feel. That’s what I do. How long will it take to figure out whether or not they’re serious? I said maybe in the first minute. You know, the way – they say that you know if you’re going to like somebody in the first five seconds. You ever hear that one? Well, I think that very quickly I’ll know whether or not something good is going to happen.”
Trump is a leader who goes by his gut (it can seem like in almost every decision) and getting to a place where he can size somebody up is clearly important to him.
Those talks with Kim, by the way, led to a new series of negotiations on denuclearization that have had their ups and downs.
Of course, in the meeting with Putin there was no specific single goal like the one with North Korea. There were plenty of topics for discussion, from how to deal with Syria (where Russia supports Bashar al-Assad) to Russia’s annexation of Crimea (condemned by the international community) to a possible nuclear arms race. The list goes on.
And while almost everyone outside of North Korea can agree that denuclearization there is a good idea, the same can’t be said of how to deal with Russia. There’s the awkward issue of Russia meddling in the US election, according to the US intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. Trump isn’t sure Russia did meddle and he’s said Putin denied it in their previous meetings.
Trump said on Twitter heading into the meeting that the special counsel investigation into election meddling was escalated only because he won the White House. He called it a “Rigged Witch Hunt” and suggested that the investigation has hurt US and Russia relations, which he can fix. The Russian Foreign Ministry retweeted the tweet, adding “we agree.”
After the summit meeting with Trump on Monday, Putin told reporters Russia has never tried to influence US elections and Trump said they spent a “great deal of time” on the subject.
And that brings us to reason two from above: He’s been frustrated by leaks from previous conversations with world leaders. Look no further than his first interaction as President with the President of Mexico: Notes on that tense phone call were leaked to the press and outlined Trump trying to get Enrique Peña Nieto to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for Trump’s planned border wall. Or look to his first long meeting with Putin as President, a little more than a year ago, when they met for two hours on the sidelines of a G20 meeting. Afterward, the Russian foreign minister said Trump accepted Putin’s denial of election meddling. Trump’s then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson painted a much different picture of the conversation.
At that same conference last July, Trump and Putin spoke for an hour with only a Russian translator.
That Trump was nervous about sensitive information leaking from the meeting is not going to calm the nerves of anyone who believes the US intelligence community’s conclusion about election meddling, but Trump has shown no indication that the allegations of meddling or the uncorroborated idea, teased by former FBI Director James Comey, of the Russians having “dirt” on him would temper his desire to show warmth to Putin.
It’s the third reason for alone time, however, that might be most incredible: that Trump is nervous about aides who take a harder line than him on Russia being at all involved in the direct talks or interrupting him.
Underlying this concern is that Trump doesn’t trust even his own aides’ judgment on how to deal with Russia. Trump has made a lot of the conservative conspiracy theory that there’s an entrenched “deep state” out to get him even though he leads the government. This third reason could be considered an extension of that. It is a very paranoid place indeed if the US President can’t trust his own staffers not to undercut him during talks with Russia.
But it also says something about how Trump views the job. It’s clear that in his view there’s no amount of experience, at the State Department, the National Security Council or within the US intelligence community, that can do better than his gut.