President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and joint press conference have left many of his supporters scratching their heads. His opponents have been desperate for something to pounce on because they can’t get the collusion narrative to bear the fruit they need to neuter him, so they now alternate between condemnation and ridicule.
But observers who have applauded Trump’s tough words and actions regarding both U.S. allies and foes are having a hard time understanding why he did not choose to treat Putin as he has all others: with both carrots and sticks. Why all carrots for Putin in public?
Trump has been able to use words and deeds to get the kind of action he wants out of whomever he is negotiating with. So far it has been working fairly well, and certainly better than his predecessor’s approach. But today the president created a problem for himself that only strong action can mitigate. In short, he let Putin save too much face and that may well delay improvement in U.S.-Russia relations.
What Putin Wants from the United States
Putin is not interested only in the removal of sanctions and an end to U.S. strikes against his allies. He certainly wants that. But above all Putin wants to stay in power. It is a matter of survival for him. Unlike Western leaders, who win and hold power by elections, Putin holds and wields power by appearing strong and in charge. He needs to appear strong to the Russian people, and to his gang of elites, who regularly have to consider if Putin in power is good for their interests.
Indirectly, he needs the countries of Europe and his “near abroad” as well as his allies like Syria to see him as powerful and in charge. So how does he demonstrate this power? By getting other leaders to defer to him. That’s how dictators get and keep power, and influence world events. After all, Russia is never going to influence world events by being a commercial giant or a beacon of hope and stability in the world, the role the United States has been playing for about 70 years.
So the Trump-Putin meeting represents a missed opportunity for Trump. More than that, the president misread the public relations situation that he faces in his relations with Putin and the United States’ relations with Russia. That is truly surprising. In the most seminal moment of today’s press conference—the main element of this meeting in which the president could publicly show his strength and grace toward a “competitor”—the president used the opportunity to focus almost exclusively on his struggles with critics at home and let Putin appear to be the one with the most leverage.
It did not have to be this way.
What President Trump Got Right
Let us stipulate what the president is right about. The United States and Russia should improve their relationship for the sake of our common interests, which are few in number but important. These are combating terrorism, stabilizing Syria, and ensuring that Israel is not threatened by Iran’s attempts to use the Syrian chaos.
Also, we should seek better relations so we can work on non-proliferation problems and try to find common ground in dealing with North Korea. Finally, the United States needs to return to playing the role of the great power with whom both China and Russia want to have stable relations. We can do none of these things if there is no communication or only strained communication with Russia.
President Trump went into this meeting with plenty of leverage—and the personality and reputation—to effect this outcome. We are incredibly rich, powerful, and highly regarded by much of the world, and feared by the rest. Further, the president carried with him the leverage that Putin is a clear malefactor in the world who threatens his neighbors; meddles in the Middle East to the point of war crimes; murders foreign citizens in their own countries; and bolsters rogue nations like North Korea. His deeds are wicked and his words are lies, and everyone knows it.
None of this is to say that Trump needed to go into this meeting and verbally attack and abuse Putin. Diplomacy at the highest levels calls for restraint of words and tone. But it doesn’t call for one leader to defer to another’s leader’s views on anything. It definitely doesn’t call for a leader to make his domestic political concerns the issue, especially to the degree that he will not publicly support his own cabinet.
What Should Have Happened Today Instead
So how should this meeting and press conference have gone?
We don’t know what was said in private, but if the private meeting was anything like the press conference, it will be very hard for the president to undo the damage. But let us assume that the president was blunt and clear in the private meeting and that he said exactly what he should have to Putin: “The case against your government is almost fool-proof, but what was done in the past was on my predecessor’s watch. I am president now and it will not happen again with impunity. There will be consequences so severe that your government will regret doing this again. Nothing that you want out of a relationship with the United States, which you clearly need and want, will come to fruition.”
Moving to the press conference, the president did not need to repeat the same words and tone that he used in private, but he should have spoken differently than he actually did. First, he should have supported his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and said, “The United States has established to its satisfaction that the Russian government meddled in our elections. President Putin and I understand that we don’t agree on this matter. Notwithstanding that disagreement, which is not likely to be resolved, the United States takes very seriously the infringement of any actor on the sovereignty of the American people, even if such attempts are to no avail. Further”—and here is where the president could have had his cake and eaten it too regarding Russian meddling and the president’s domestic critics—“while the preceding administration might not have dealt with this meddling effectively, and has been used to promote a false narrative about collusion between my campaign and foreigners, I will deal forthrightly with any attempts to meddle in our elections as an attack on the sovereignty of the American people.”
Finally, President Trump could have moved on to say that “great powers have sharp disagreements all the time, but that should not prevent us from having relations that allow us to work on common interests.” In sum, speaking publicly and with diplomatic aplomb, Trump could have directly accused Putin in private but in public he could have generalized and warned any actor of what the U.S. response will be to future meddling. It would have been somewhat of a triumph for him, especially since he just handled allied leaders that way in Europe.
But by refusing to back Coats, by turning immediately to an attack on his domestic opponents, the FBI, the Democrats, and the Clinton campaign, he completely let Putin off the hook. He certainly should not have lauded Putin’s absurd plan by which one of the most infamous liars and murderers on the world stage would judge his own regime’s actions and hand us a pre-designed verdict of not guilty.
Why This Would Have Been Wise
Why is it important that Trump should have spoken at the press conference this way? Because, as noted above, Putin’s design is not simply better relations with us, or to rid himself of sanctions and further uses of force by the United States against his personnel and allies. True enough, he wants all that.
But more important for Putin—precisely because it allows him to be the world malefactor that he is—is his desire to be seen as tough and in charge, with others deferring to him and fearing him. For him to escape a press conference unscathed, deferred to, with the U.S. government in the dock and not him, is of immense importance to his prestige and that redounds to his power to keep running Russia the way he does.
I applaud every action President Trump has taken against Putin and his efforts around the world. But action alone is not sufficient to handle Putin. Prestige in global politics matters; perception matters. Putin thrives on the prestige accorded to bullies; by it rogue regimes are emboldened and we and our allies are diminished and discouraged.
Part of President Trump’s job as president is to publicly put the United States on the right side of the issues, as clearly as possible, whenever he can. He can treat Putin as a real partner in our common interests when Putin understands how he can have a good relationship with us, as a more normal nation. But treating him that way before he’s done anything to reform his actions in the world, when he’s actually lying to Trump, only strengthens Putin.
When the president of the United States defers to a liar and a murderer and a source of global conflict, nothing good for the United States can come from it. If this is the kind of relationship the president seeks, he’s seeking the wrong kind of relationship. If bluntness and toughness is called for with allies and has arguably worked for the president, surely it will work against a weak leader of a poor country who desperately needs the U.S. president not to punch him in the nose.
Even Reporters Did Better than Trump Today
The irony of this is that Putin made one of the truest and most apt statements regarding relations between states when a reporter asked why anyone should believe him. Putin essentially said we don’t trust each other, we each defend our own interests, but we should try to reconcile differences.
Is the president right to be angry that his political opponents, while they sat in the Obama administration, appear to have colluded with Russians and others to stop his election or later to bring him down? Yes, of course. But should those frustrations affect his understanding of our global relationships and diplomatic needs? No, not at all.
Am I glad that Putin agreed that Russia and the United States have an interest in Israel’s security and that we should work for a peaceful end to Syria’s problems? Sure, but since Putin is not to be believed, that matters little. What matters is the power of the United States and the prestige of the U.S. president. These are what bring problems like Putin to heel. We didn’t see those assets deployed effectively in the press conference.
President Trump missed the chance to show Putin as well as the world that a Trump relationship with Russia will be different than Obama’s. He could have shown himself different by showing that he put the American people’s interests first, and that interest is more than simply having a better relationship with Russia. He could have demonstrated that no leader can threaten or harm the United States with impunity, nor lie to its leader, nor behave as a rogue, and expect the United States to defer to him.
He has nothing left now but to continue his strong actions against Putin’s aggressions and non-cooperation, so that a few weeks or months from now observers can say that the president might have let Putin come off unscathed in the press conference but at least his actions remain tough, so Putin will have to come around at some point. That, the use of coercion and force, will work.
The price for all this in the short- and medium-term, however, is likely to be an emboldened Putin who is willing to withstand more pain because he got out of the press conference what he wanted: deference, enhanced prestige, and thus power over his internal and external enemies. He got what he most wanted, and that means it will take longer for improved relations between the United States and Russia.