A face-to-face sitdown with a long-feared foe. Endless media hype. Huge ratings.
Although President Donald Trump has met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin twice before, he is eager to recreate in Finland the heady experience that he had last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore: a summit that became a mass media event complete with powerful presidential images. Ever the showman and insistent on establishing closer ties to Moscow, Trump overruled his advisers and demanded the rituals and pageantry of a formal summit.
Trump had boasted to confidants about the number of cameras in Singapore, claiming it dwarfed coverage of the Oscars, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations and so spoke on condition of anonymity. Though Trump originally expressed concern that Helsinki was not glamorous enough and favored hosting Putin at the White House, the president was reassured by aides that it would be an effective backdrop. And long believing in the power of personal connections, he has insisted to aides that it was essential to sit down with Putin to establish a rapport.
“He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him. I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor,” Trump said of Putin last week in Brussels. “You know, somebody was saying, ‘Is he an enemy?’ No, he’s not my enemy. ‘Is he a friend?’ No, I don’t know him well enough.”
Drawing on his experience as a marketer and salesman, Trump has long been convinced that his mastery of powerful images has been essential to his political rise. The president has told advisers that the Singapore diplomacy made him look like a take-charge president. And it was not lost on him that his poll numbers received a temporary bump after the meeting.
With the same attention to detail that he devoted to campaign ads, Trump masterminded many of the looks for his meeting with Kim, including the two leaders’ dramatic initial greeting and handshake and, later, their one-on-one time. At one point, he startled the Secret Service by giving Kim an impromptu tour of some mighty American machinery — the presidential limousine known as “The Beast.”
Though the results from the North Korea summit are debatable, Trump has told confidants he believed it was a masterstroke, according to three outside advisers and White House officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Always favoring bold gambits that would separate him from his predecessors, Trump believed that the historic meeting with Kim was potentially his ticket for a Nobel Peace Prize and would become an essential part of his legacy. While summits with Russian leaders are far more common, Trump believes a similar boost would occur if he can improve relations with Moscow and get Putin to make concessions never attained by President Barack Obama.
“I could say: ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Syria,’” Trump said in an interview with Fox News last month. “‘Would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Ukraine?’”
And while the imagery of Singapore made the idea of a Putin summit that much more tantalizing, Trump was already keen on setting up a one-on-one meeting, even with the risks entailed in meeting an experienced leader who is also a former KGB official.
The president met with Putin on the sidelines of international summits last year — once in Germany, once in Vietnam — and both times he invited his Russian counterpart to the White House, according to three current and former administration officials. He reiterated the invitation on a call with Putin this spring and initially told aides that he wanted to have the meeting at the White House.
He was later convinced to do it abroad, tacking the summit onto his planned visit to Belgium and Britain. Initially concerned that Helsinki was not a fitting location, Trump relented after being briefed on the history of U.S.-Russia summits in Finland and after seeing that it could be scheduled after a visit to one of his golf courses in Scotland, according to the three outside advisers and officials.
But many in Washington are leery of the summit occurring anywhere, believing that just by agreeing to meet, Trump has offered further global legitimacy to Putin, who will preside over the World Cup final in Moscow the day before the summit. Aides have argued to Trump that the chances of substantive progress on a host of thorny issues, including Syria and Ukraine, are slim.
Longtime American allies and White House aides alike have expressed concerns about the meeting. Hovering over Helsinki is the specter of the 2016 election interference and the ongoing special counsel probe into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia. There were calls from Capitol Hill for the president to cancel the summit after Friday’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in an effort to help Trump.
“If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But the White House has insisted the meeting is on. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking and frequently derided special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible links between Russia and his campaign as a “witch hunt.” But he said in Britain that he would raise the election meddling with Putin even as he played down its impact.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ’Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,’” Trump said on Friday, invoking a television detective. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”