President Donald Trump leaves Wednesday for his second international trip as president, heading to the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany where he will have a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
The New York Times said that Trump’s top aides and advisers have been briefing and re-briefing the president on how to handle the Putin meeting, but they’re concerned that Putin — a seasoned political operator and canny negotiator — will still manage to gain the upper hand against the thin-skinned, easily confused U.S. president.
“There’s a fair amount of nervousness in the White House and at the State Department about this meeting and how they manage it because they see a lot of potential risks,” said former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer — who has also worked with the National Security Council and the State Department. “There is this gray cloud for the president of the investigations about collusion, so any kind of a deal is going to get the micro-scrutiny of, ‘Is this a giveaway to the Russians?’”
Trump is reportedly confident about meeting, certain that he can handle Putin, the Times said.
“Mr. Trump himself is not troubled by the meeting. He has told aides he is more annoyed by the prospect of being scolded by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other leaders for pulling out of the Paris climate accords and for his hard line on immigration,” wrote the Times‘ Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Glenn Thrush.
White House aides told the Times that Trump is likely to bring up the topic of Russian meddling in the 2016 election but does not expect to dwell on it, given that it calls into question the legitimacy over his Electoral College victory over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump plans to devote the bulk of the conversation to the conflict in Syria, aides say, and hopes to lead the agenda for the meeting. They announced on Tuesday that the meeting will be a “formal bilateral discussion,” the Times said, “rather than the quick pull-aside at the economic summit meeting that some had expected.”
“Mr. Trump’s aides are seeking structure and predictability. They hope that a formal meeting, with aides present and an agenda, will leave less room for improvisation and relegate Russia’s meddling in the campaign to a secondary topic, behind more pressing policy concerns that the president is eager to address,” wrote Davis and Thrush.
The president’s many critics are concerned that international policy neophyte Trump will give too many concessions to Russia and hobble the implementation of sanctions recommended by Congress.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed (RI) said, “Let’s be clear: The Russians interfered in our election and helped elect Donald Trump president. There is a serious, ongoing criminal investigation into this matter. And President Trump must refrain from any unilateral concessions to Russia.”