Russian President Vladimir Putin offers a ball from the 2018 World Cup to US President Donald Trump after a meeting in Helsinki in July. Photo: AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin offers a ball from the 2018 World Cup to US President Donald Trump after a meeting in Helsinki in July. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump has prided himself as “a great dealmaker” who “like[s] making deals, preferably big deals” as “deals are [his] art form” and as a capable, powerful man who “alone can fix” things.

But, in the two most important meetings of his presidency – with Kim Jong-un in Singapore last month and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday – the former business tycoon-turned-president was completely outfoxed by the North Korean ruler and the Russian leader.

Of these two, without a doubt, his encounter with Putin was more disastrous.

Throughout the 45-minute press conference with Putin after their talks, including a secretive two-hour meeting, on July 16, the US president declined each and every chance to condemn Moscow’s aggressive and illegal actions, notably its meddling in the US’s 2016 presidential election.

His awful and disgraceful display has evoked widespread denunciation from US media outlets, intelligence officials and top politicians, including those from his own Republican Party (GOP) and Fox News, the right-wing, pro-Trump network.

John McCain, a prominent GOP senator and a frequent Trump critic, condemned his news conference, calling it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” He added: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

Newt Gingrich, former GOP speaker of the House and one of the president’s strongest allies, called Trump’s remarks at the joint conference “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” stressing the mistake “must be corrected – immediately.”

An opinion piece by Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, listed “several critical errors” he had made at the press conference.

At a solo press conference after his face-to-face with Kim Jong-un on June 12, Trump likewise made stunning announcements, including his decision to end the US’s annual joint military exercises with South Korea, without first consulting and informing Seoul. All of this puzzled many among the US and South Korean military and political circles

What’s even more baffling is that he unilaterally gave away a lot but gained very little, if anything significant, from the young dictator, except his blank commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Many factors contributed to his calamities in Singapore and Helsinki.

Chief among these is probably his arrogance and this was manifested in many ways.

For instance, before his departure for Europe, he claimed that of the three stops on his latest European tour – namely Brussels for the Nato summit, an official visit to the United Kingdom, and Helsinki for the Putin summit – the latter “may be the easiest.”

It turned out to be the trickiest and, indeed, the most catastrophic one for Trump. This is unsurprising.

It is obvious that Trump is a political novice compared to Putin, a former KGB officer, who has effectively ruled Russia with absolute power since 2000

His arrogance and, consequently, his lack of preparation for the high-stakes encounter, put him at a great disadvantage. While it is unclear whether Trump has the qualities he boasts he has, it is obvious that Trump is a political novice compared to Putin, a former KGB officer, who has effectively ruled Russia with absolute power since 2000.

Before his much-anticipated meeting with Kim Jong-un on June 12, Trump also adopted a similar arrogance and laziness, saying he didn’t think he had “to prepare very much” because the summit was “about willingness to get things done.”

Though he failed to get any concrete and substantial commitment from North Korea’s thirty-something tyrant with regard to his denuclearization, a day after the summit, Trump proudly declared that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office” because “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

More than a month after the much-talked-about summit, there is no sign that Pyongyang will embark on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) that the Trump administration has sought.

In his remarks at the press conference with Putin, Trump said the US-Russia relationship “has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago.” This is more evidence of Trump’s exaggerated sense of self-importance.

In fact, contrary to what he claimed or hoped, the relationship is now worse than it was before the summit. Due to his debacle in Helsinki and his overt deference to Russia’s Putin in general, Trump is now faced with greater pressure from Congress, the American public and even people within his administration to adopt a more hawkish approach to Moscow, making his aim to “reset” the Russia relationship even more difficult.

Admittedly, the vehement denunciation of his dismal performance in Helsinki forced Trump to walk it back a day later, stating that he misspoke at the news conference. On the same day, in an apparent attempt to illustrate that he “is protecting [the US’s] elections and standing up to Russia’s malign activities” the White House published a list of measures and actions against Moscow his administration has taken.

On Wednesday, Trump went further, saying he would hold the Russian president “responsible” for meddling in the US election.

Ahead of his meeting with the Russian president, Trump angrily criticized America’s strongest allies. He accused Germany of being “totally controlled by” and “a captive of Russia” and called Nato members “delinquent” in their defense spending. He also slammed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan and negotiations.

Asked to identify his “biggest foe globally right now,” he named the European Union, which comprises some of America’s oldest and closest allies, before China and Russia. (It is worth noting that his administration’s key security-related documents – namely the National Security StrategyNational Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review –  identify the two “revisionist powers” as the top security threats facing the US).

Before flying to Singapore for the meeting with the North Korean dictator, Trump also had an acrimonious and tempestuous meeting with the leaders of the seven large democratic economies (G7) in Canada and personally insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The six other members of the G7 – namely Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and the UK – are the US’s closest, biggest and strongest friends.

Trump’s arrogance is a key reason behind his resentment and disdain toward his country’s traditional allies and their leaders. By adopting such a posture toward them before meeting Kim and Putin, it is probable that Trump wanted to show he was tough and this would strengthen his leverage, helping him to achieve better outcomes. If this was his strategy and intention, it clearly backfired.

Trump’s deference to the rulers of his country’s foes and disregard for the leaders of its friends make people in America and like-minded countries more critical of – and opposed to – him

In any case, Trump’s deference to the rulers of his country’s foes and disregard for the leaders of its friends make people in America and like-minded countries more critical of – and opposed to – him.

At the press conference with Putin, Trump said: “As president, I will always put what is best for America and what is best for the American people.” His performance in Helsinki, however, clearly illustrated that he cares more about his own political survival and personal vanity than his country’s values, institutions, interests and reputation.

In many respects, it can be said that the Helsinki conference and, indeed, the whole summit, was about Trump’s efforts to protect his 2016 election, which remains a talking point in American politics due to (alleged) Russian meddling.

That’s why standing before the world, he chose to side with the Russian leader over the US intelligence agencies, including Dan Coats, his own director of intelligence. He called the US “foolish,” blaming his country for the currently strained relations between the two powers.

In fact, just hours before sitting down with Putin, Trump already blamed the currently poor state of US-Russia relations on “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The ‘rigged witch hunt” he referred to in a tweet was the probe about the Russian meddling in the 2016 election launched by his Justice Department and run by Robert Mueller. Though this investigation has not completed – as plainly stated by Paul Ryan, the current Republican speaker – the US intelligence and political communities virtually unanimously concluded that Russia actively interfered.

Ryan’s statement also stressed that Trump “must appreciate that Russia  is not our ally and “remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals.”  He added that the US “must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”

In her Fox News commentary, Judith Miller likewise lamented that “at a time when our democracy faces grave threats, it is more than troubling that President Trump would side with the very country that has attacked us.”

However, she concluded, “doing more than merely criticizing is vital to protecting American national interests. President Trump – and America, for that matter – can only win against Putin if we are assertive of American goals and our values. President Trump failed to accomplish that Monday.”

Senator McCain’s statement said the damage inflicted by “Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate, […] it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”

In a piece entitled “Trump embodies every one of the Seven Deadly Sins,” a political analyst said, “American presidents all have failings … Trump departs from all presidents since Richard Nixon in that he is unable to control his impulses and manage his sins.”

Judging by his behavior, notably his recent summit and press conference with Putin, such an assessment of Trump is correct.

If he had controlled his excessive impulses, notably his ego and arrogance, Trump wouldn’t have made such reckless and destructive mistakes in Helsinki.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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