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Is Trump a Putin fan or adversary?

Which reality will prevail as the American president meets with the Russian leader?

President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 Summit on July 7, 2017, in Hamburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Getty Images / German Government Press Office

Several unusual conditions underlie the upcoming summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

For one, the American president, while in private life, openly courted the Russian leader and his allies, seeking business deals.

For another, Trump still exempts the Kremlin from the sneering and blame he frequently hurls at so many other people and institutions in the United States and abroad. 

Their meeting, set for July 16 in Finland, comes amid a still-active law enforcement probe of Trump's campaign and the many Eastern European dealings of its personnel.

In a stunning moment last year, Trump indicated to Putin underlings in the Oval Office that his firing of FBI Director James Comey would help relations.

"I just fired the head of the FBI," he reported to them. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off. ... I'm not under investigation." 

Still, official U.S. tensions with the Putin regime and Trump's vexation with the questions of investigators go on as they did then. So does Kremlin-linked cybermeddling in American politics, says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Earlier this year, Trump's Treasury Department imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Russian nationals and companies for election interference.

Also: NATO seems intact despite Trump jabs against it; Russia's move into eastern Ukraine remains a fact on the ground and the United States is selling weapons to Ukraine  in the name of fending off the pro-Russia Crimean secession. And under Trump, the United States closed Russian diplomatic sites last year, as President Barack Obama did the year before.

So which Trump reality will prevail — his role as head of an adversarial nation, or his unabashed admiration and verbal bouquets for Putin? 

For his part, Putin keeps boasting about his country's prospective nuclear weapons, saying they are way ahead of foreign designs. After Trump said the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran-friendly Putin warned against "claims to exceptionalism" and "aggressive nationalism."

Putin would like to operate with a free hand in Syria, where he is allied with leader Bashar Assad. Trump lately seems amenable to withdrawing U.S. forces but would like an end to Iran's presence.

It is not as if the summit will bring strangers together for the first time. As Putin last month told an Austrian news organization: "Donald Trump and I have, firstly, met more than once at various international venues. And secondly, we regularly talk over the phone." 

While keeping it cordial with Putin, Trump has uniquely razzed NATO, which seeks to offset Russian clout in the region. On Wednesday and Thursday, a few days ahead of the Putin summit, Trump attends a meeting in Brussels of the European alliance where tensions may be on display.  

As with the recent meeting between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the main question for the Helsinki summit is whether anything other than a mutually flattering photo op will be achieved.

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