WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is trying to downplay expectations as he heads into Monday’s summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as lawmakers back home are urging Trump to take a more forceful position with Russia on a range of issues including its interference in the 2016 presidential election, experts say.
Former presidents historically have entered such one-on-one meetings armed with a list of agreements to negotiate.
But foreign policy analysts say Trump’s agenda for the meeting in Helsinki appears to be more general, with the White House describing the session broadly as a discussion about ‘‘relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues.’’
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, when asked by reporters during a recent briefing what specific “deliverables” or co-signed agreements the Trump administration hoped to take away from the summit, argued that, “the fact that we're having a summit at this level, at this time in history, is a deliverable in itself.”
Speaking at a news conference beside British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday in Britain — the second leg of his three-nation European trip — Trump said: "I’m not going in with high expectations but we may come out with some very surprising things."
Huntsman said Trump likely will discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a move that sparked condemnation and sanctions against Putin from the United States and its allies in 2014.
Also likely to come up is Russia’s support of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, regarded as an adversary by the U.S. and its allies, Huntsman said.
But he stopped short of signaling what results Trump is hoping for on the Crimea and Syria issues.
Huntsman also said Trump will raise the issue of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election. Trump often has questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow meddled in the election.
Asked by reporters at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels if he would ask Putin about the election issues, Trump replied, “of course.” But he continued: “What am I going to do? He may deny it. All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”
Republicans and Democrats have called on the president to criticize Putin more strongly — particularly since the Department of Justice on Friday announced indictments against 12 Russian nationals as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s actions in the 2016 election.
The Russians, all members of a Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU, were indicted for hacking into U.S. election systems including “the website of a state election board.” They allegedly stole the information of 500,000 voters, and orchestrated a “sustained effort” to hack into the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta and other Democratic campaign officials.
The indictments prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call on Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin "until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections. Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on Fox News, said he did not mind Trump seeking a good relationship with Putin but hoped “the president will not accept Putin's denial that he had nothing to do with interfering in 2016 election because they are still doing it. They are trying to influence the 2018 election.”
“I think he's trying to have a good relationship, but a good relationship has to be defined by behavior,” Graham said of Trump. “Putin is not doing anything good in Syria. He's not doing anything good in Ukraine. He's certainly not a friend of the United States by meddling in our election . . . So be tough on Putin.”
Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Kalikow Center for the Study of the American presidency, said the administration’s broad descriptions of the summit’s objectives “suggest more an exploratory meeting than a decision making meeting” will take place on Monday.
“Certainly there’s an opportunity here for Russia to promote its interests with the United States, to rebuild its standing in the international community,” Bose said. “The U.S.’s interests in a summit with Russia at this stage are somewhat uncertain. It appears Russia has a lot more to gain by meeting with the United States.”