It’s safe to say that no meeting between two leaders in recent history has generated as much suspense as the first meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin last week in Hamburg, Germany, where both attended the Group of 20 summit.
The results, like much else in the news today, are very much in the eye of the beholder. But those who hoped that the meeting would help Trump definitively cast off the “Putin’s puppet” label that has clung to him since the campaign have few reasons to cheer.
Leaving aside esoteric sciences such as body analysis, here’s what we know about the meeting, which lasted more than two hours. Trump brought up the issue of Russian interference in our last election (by means of pilfering the emails of Democratic National Committee officials and Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, which were then released in a way calculated to damage the Clinton campaign). Putin denied any meddling. Both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have suggested that Trump accepted this claim. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the two basically agreed to disagree, with a focus on how to “move forward.” While these two accounts obviously differ, the difference may be essentially semantic.
Tillerson also says Trump returned to the topic of Russian interference more than once during the conversation. That may well be true, but it’s extremely vague. What was the full extent of the discussion? What was said? According to Lavrov, “Trump mentioned that in U.S., certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof.”
While Lavrov has all the credibility of that guy who emailed to offer you a chunk of a Nigerian prince’s fortune, it has to be said that in this case, his assertion has a ring of truth, because it sounds exactly like something Trump would say. During his visit to Poland just two days before the Putin meeting, Trump told the media, “I think it very well could be Russia, but it could very well have been other countries . . . Nobody really knows.”
So, what about that “moving forward”? According to the official readout of the meeting, Trump and Putin agreed to work on a mutual commitment not to meddle in each other’s elections. Aside from the fact that such promises from Putin would be meaningless, this kind of agreement would be, as political consultant Molly McKew notes in Politico, “an incalculable PR victory for the Kremlin.” The agreement would essentially equate Russian cyberattacks with American criticism of rigged elections or support for independent election watchdog groups.
The summit results also include a de facto U.S. blessing for Russia’s role in Syria — even though only two days earlier, in his speech in Warsaw, Poland, Trump urged Russia to cease its support for “hostile regimes,” including the one in Syria.
The Warsaw speech garnered praise from many normally critical commentators who were impressed by Trump’s affirmation of the U.S. commitment to NATO and his tough words toward Moscow, including a mention of its “destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere.” But, notably, the criticism also included an invitation to “join the community of responsible nations . . . in defense of civilization itself” — with no mention of domestic reforms such as restoring freedom of the press and judicial independence.
Meanwhile, before the Kremlin has taken any positive action, the White House is trying to kill or water down a Senate bill tightening sanctions on Russia in retaliation for both its aggression against Ukraine and its U.S. election meddling.
So far, the worst expectations of the Trump-Putin bromance are coming true.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.