If the Trump White House had let it be known a couple of months ago that it was working with the Kremlin to schedule a summit meeting between the two presidents, all hell would have broken loose in the Washington Beltway. But that hasn’t happened.
In fact, there has been an eerie calm in Washington in the lead-up before and after the announcement that Trump will meet Vladimir Putin in the old ‘Cold War’ city of Helsinki in Finland on July 16.
What explains it? First, the fizz seems to have gone out of the Russia collusion theory. Robert Mueller could keep uncovering crimes in American public life (of which there is no dearth) forever but he has not been able to say he has actually substantiated the Russia collusion theory. A Pew Research Center analysis on June 20 revealed that only 28% Americans remain any longer “very confident” of the fairness of Mueller’s investigation, while four-in-10 say they are not too sure (19%) or are at all confident (21%) in his ability to do this.
Pew admitted: “Republicans and Democrats offer starkly different assessments of Mueller’s conduct of the investigation and Trump’s ability to deal with it, and these partisan differences extend to views of the importance of the investigation itself.”
This partly explains why the cascade of criticism that could have been expected over Trump’s plan for a meeting with Putin hasn’t materialized – although a lavish, televised lovefest is sure to make a mockery of the Mueller inquest.
Fundamentally, Trump has had remarkable success in boosting his political standing among members of his own party. As Susan Glasser wrote in the New Yorker recently: “Increasingly, few Republicans are willing to stand in Trump’s way, even when the President’s policies clash with their own deeply held views.”
The recent lamentation by John Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives – “There is no Republican Party. There is a Trump Party” – may be an exaggeration that he made while sipping a Bloody Mary on stage at a recent conference in Michigan.
Nonetheless, as Glasser writes: “The political reality is simply this: President Trump is now too popular with the Republican base to challenge, even when he appears to be upending policies the party of Reagan has embraced for decades.”
So, when Trump pressed ahead with a meeting with Putin (which he wanted all along), there was an air of resignation about it. To be sure, Trump’s dramatic, showy one-one-one meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore rewrote contemporary American diplomatic history. And he rewrote it all by himself while no one back home was even sure whether he should do it.
Trump-Putin summit: perfect next act
Russia, of course, is different. But the analogy of the Art of the Deal is still relevant and why should Trump give up on his campaign vision of closer ties with the Russian president without ever testing it? The Russophobes are hard-pressed to find an answer. Thus, it was a fait accompli that as a US president who embraces personal diplomacy with America’s adversaries as his trademark in foreign policy, Trump’s forthcoming summit with Putin became a perfect next act.
Did Trump work towards this? The point is, he’s an inscrutable politician. It wasn’t mere coincidence that just before leaving for the recent G-7 summit in Canada, he would think up the unthinkable – Russia’s return to the grouping. The seemingly stray thought actually gets bracketed with his move to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the vital underpinning of President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot-to-Asia’ strategy (without which a containment strategy against China lacks gravitas).
The common thread is that Trump’s Art of the Deal means putting the focus on America’s interests rather than on the negating of adversaries’ legitimate interests or concerns – be it North Korea or Russia. Of course, if there is an uncomfortable overlap, a deal becomes necessary and Trump believes in his ability to negotiate it.
So, Trump essentially took at a pot shot at the West’s containment strategy against Russia by raising the G7 petard. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, the spadework began for a successful summit between Trump and Putin. Of course, there are so many fault-lines in the overall relationship and anything can go wrong between now and the summit. The Kremlin can ensure that there is no “sabotage” from the Russian side, but that cannot be said for the Trump White House.
An announcement confirming the Trump-Putin summit in mid-July came on June 28. The meeting will be held after Trump attends the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12 and Putin goes to the closing ceremony of the World Cup in Russia.
An early sign that the summit was being planned was news that a three-member group of Republican senators – Richard Shelby (Alabama), John Neely Kennedy (Louisiana) and John Hoeven (North Dakota) – would visit Russia in early July on a “reconnaissance mission.” Historically, Moscow has preferred to talk with America’s “hawks”. And the good part is that the Trump administration is sponsoring the lawmakers’ visit.
Trump has faced resistance from the US’s European allies who fear “exclusion” from a potential US-Russia rapprochement. And the resistance to detente in the US and in Europe coalesces. Yet, Trump’s strategic asset is that with a high popularity rating of 45% he is at his strongest position today politically and can do things pretty much as he always wanted.
– This article was updated on June 29.