Fresh off his trip to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, President Trump is now set to sit down with his original authoritarian BFF, Vladimir Putin. Despite their flirtations, Trump has yet to travel for an official summit with the Russian president since taking office.
This week, National Security Adviser John Bolton traveled overseas to hammer out the details, and on Thursday morning, a date and location were set: July 16th in Helsinki, Finland – four days after Trump will attend a NATO summit in Belgium. The president pre-empted the announcement by reminding his Twitter followers that he trusts the word of Russia more than American intelligence agencies.
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
Chasing the NATO summit with a Putin powwow brings to mind that time Trump laid waste to the G7 summit in Canada, even trashing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, en route to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom Trump spent the next week praising breathlessly. America’s allies are now worried the president’s upcoming NATO-Putin swing could be a repeat of what transpired earlier this month. Trump has long been critical of NATO, claiming that the member nations are taking advantage of America and not paying their fair share. According to the Washington Post, when Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven explained to Trump in March that his nation is not a member of NATO but that it partners with its nations on a “case-by-case basis,” Trump said the United States might consider a similar approach.
Trump’s ill will toward NATO persisted into June, when he reportedly told leaders at the G7 summit that the alliance is “as bad as NAFTA” and that it is “too costly for the U.S.” Trump also lobbied for Russia to be reinstated to the group of allied nations, which it was suspended from in 2014 after invading and annexing Crimea. Though Bolton has said that Trump will not recognize the annexation as legitimate, Trump reportedly told G7 leaders that Crimea should be part of Russia because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.
The combination of Trump’s antipathy toward America’s allies and his unbridled praise of Putin could make for an especially volatile NATO meeting. At the top of the agenda in Belgium will be strengthening the solidarity of member nations against an increasingly hostile Russia. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who may be slipping out of Trump’s good graces, pitched NATO defense ministers on a plan to deploy troops to counter Russia’s military presence in Europe. But it will be the president, not Mattis, who will represent the United States in Europe next month, and Trump has only seemed to express concern over Russia as a way of placating hardliners like Mattis. One of those hardliners used to be Bolton, but the national security adviser has quickly fallen in line with Trump’s sympathetic stance toward Russia. Like, really fallen in line.
Speaking about Vladimir Putin in 2013, John Bolton said: “We need to do things that cause him pain.” Today in the Kremlin he told Russia’s president: “We are most appreciative of your courtesy and graciousness.” pic.twitter.com/PJfILTbdPB
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) June 27, 2018
Just as concerning as Trump undermining the NATO meeting is what he might concede to Putin when the two leaders meet. It’s unlikely Putin will be very pleased with NATO’s plans to ramp up their military presence to counter Russia. “I’m hoping that, I think we are all hoping that [Trump] will not be charmed to such an extent that he will be tempted to give anything up because we don’t want him to give anything up,” Polish Secretary of State Anna Maria Anders recently told Axios. “I guess, above all, we don’t want him to give up U.S. forces on Polish soil.”
If allies don’t want Trump to concede military presence, the president’s summit with Kim Jong-un was not a good sign. Though receiving only vague promises that North Korea would denuclearize, Trump agreed to suspend joint military exercises the United States had been conducting with South Korea. Earlier this week it was reported that North Korea is making “rapid” upgrades to its nuclear reactor. Another concerning precedent came in July 2017, when Trump unexpectedly agreed to partner with Russia on a “cyber security unit” during an informal meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
The uncomfortable reality of American foreign policy under Trump is that the nation’s most traditional allies are now, for all intents and purposes, adversaries. At the same time, Trump has heaped praise on authoritarian leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un and, especially, Vladimir Putin. Frustrated by the checks on his power in the United States, Trump admires the absolute control these leaders are able to wield over their people. It’s no coincidence that in the same Thursday morning tweet in which he cited Russia’s claim that they didn’t meddle in the 2016 election as proof that it didn’t happen, Trump also bashed the justice department that has been investigating him.
The president’s formal summit with Putin will in a way bring his bizarre dalliance with Russia full circle. It will take place almost exactly two years after then-Trump surrogate (and now attorney general) Jeff Sessions discussed Ukraine with a Russian ambassador at the 2016 Republican National Convention. That conversation occurred barely a month after the Trump campaign hired Paul Manafort, who on Wednesday was revealed to have owed $10 million to a Russian oligarch. Manafort is currently in jail facing a host of charges, many related to his dealings overseas.