A second Putin summit is off
The White House this week postponed a second meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Congress pressed for information about what the two leaders may have agreed to during a private meeting in Helsinki last week. National security adviser John Bolton announced that Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit the White House this fall had been withdrawn until 2019, “after the Russia witch hunt is over.” In Moscow, Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said that given the current “atmosphere” in Washington, “it would be right to wait for the dust to settle” before another bilateral meeting. Many congressional Republicans expressed strong criticism of Trump’s submission to Putin in Helsinki and said the Russian leader was not welcome on Capitol Hill.
At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to respond to sharp questions as to whether Trump had discussed with Putin lifting sanctions on Russia. Russian officials have touted “important verbal agreements” made between the two leaders, including the possibility of a referendum in areas of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists to determine the region’s future. Pompeo said U.S. sanctions on Russia remain “completely unchanged,” and that “no commitment has been made” to lift them. The secretary of state pointed to a new formal declaration issued by the State Department that the U.S. refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and insisted that Trump “has a complete and proper understanding” that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election.
What the editorials said
“Is this any way to run U.S. foreign policy?” asked USA Today. The total lack of transparency around Helsinki has allowed the Kremlin to own the post-summit narrative. Trump met with Putin with only their translators present for some 90 minutes. “The result? Russians have been spinning the dickens out of the event” while Americans beg for answers from their own government.
What we do know is deeply troubling, said The Weekly Standard. At Helsinki, Trump touted an “unbelievable offer” from Putin that would have enabled Russia to interrogate two men the Russian dictator hates: American-born financier Bill Browder and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Browder is an anti-corruption whistleblower who successfully lobbied the U.S. for the Magnitsky Act sanctions against Russia. It took the White House three days to unambiguously reject Putin’s proposal—which the Senate voted 98-0 to condemn. “Our horror at the president’s performance has reached its limit.”
What the columnists said
“Is Donald Trump even in charge of this government?” asked Paul Waldman in The Washington Post. FBI Director Christopher Wray, U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats all publicly distanced themselves from the president’s accommodating stance in Helsinki and contradicted Trump’s expressed doubts about Russian election interference. We’ve seen this before. While Trump has personally been a “pathetic supplicant” to Putin, his administration has pushed ahead with added sanctions and mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, often over Trump’s angry objections. This is, “to put it mildly, highly unusual.”
It’s also unsustainable, said Susan B. Glasser in NewYorker.com. With Trump at odds with the rest of the Trump administration on Russia—and North Korea and Syria too—“we are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy.” The truth is that Helsinki was nothing but an embarrassing spectacle, said Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg.com. Given how little support Trump has in his administration and Congress for his Russia détente, any oral agreements he may have made are meaningless. Trump has been “reduced to admitting that nothing happened at the summit while simultaneously insisting that it was successful.”
Russia actually understands American politics better than Trump does, said Ed Kilgore in NYMag.com. Putin resisted a second meeting after Helsinki, knowing it would inflame suspicions he had something on the U.S. president and create a deeper anti-Russia backlash. “The Russians feel so fortunate about their big propaganda win at the Helsinki summit that they don’t want to jinx themselves by returning to that well so soon.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
On the cover: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cover photos from Newscom, Getty, Newscom