Trump ‘looking at’ Putin meeting as Bolton plans Moscow trip
President Donald Trump confirmed on Thursday his interest in a July meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reigniting alarm over Trump’s desire to befriend a Russian leader widely considered a menace to the U.S. and Europe.
“We’re looking at the possibility,” Trump told reporters when asked whether he’s planning to meet with Putin next month.
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In a sign of the seriousness of the planning, however, a White House spokesman also said Thursday that national security adviser John Bolton will visit Moscow next week to prepare for a meeting with Putin. A source familiar with the discussions said Trump will likely sit down with Putin just before or after an annual NATO summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, and that Bolton would discuss possible meeting sites with Russian officials.
A summer summit with Putin would again bring the U.S. president face-to-face with the man intelligence officials blame for meddling in the 2016 election. The Russian also stands accused of approving the attempted murder with nerve agent of a former Russian spy in Great Britain earlier this year, and backs Syrian leader Bashar Assad, whose forces Trump has twice struck as punishment for their use of chemical weapons.
Russia experts say that Putin would see a meeting with Trump as a chance to shed western sanctions imposed over his aggression in Ukraine and U.S. election interference.
“This is really what Putin sees as the benefit of the 2016 presidential election. He is out of isolation. He is an equal,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Russia and the United States will be seen as equals at the summit and that is exactly what President Putin desires.”
But while Trump has imposed economic sanctions on Moscow and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S., he continues to seek friendlier ties with Putin, an authoritarian ruler who has undermined western democracies. Earlier this month, Trump called for Russia’s readmission to the G7 group of major economic powers, which expelled Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Senior administration officials have been quietly preparing for the potential meeting for weeks at the urging of the president, who is eager to have a formal sit-down with his Russian counterpart, according to a second person familiar with the planning. Trump has told aides he’s unconcerned with the optics of the meeting, the person added, despite Washington’s fixation with the federal investigations into alleged collusion between his presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
The timing could be particularly awkward given its proximity to the annual NATO gathering, where maintaining a stiff resolve against Russian aggression will undoubtedly be a key theme. As part of the trip, Trump is also scheduled to pay a July 13 state visit to Britain, where officials remain furious over the attempted murder of the former Russian intelligence agent Sergey Skripal in March. Skripal, once imprisoned by Russia as a British spy, fell into a coma along with his daughter after they came into contact with nerve agent in March at his home in Salisbury, England. U.S. and British officials have concluded that Russia was behind the operation.
Trump has long believed that the U.S. and Russia must establish a more cooperative relationship, however. Trump allies say the president believes the two countries can cooperate on issues like fighting terrorism in the Middle East, although many experts doubt that Moscow can be trusted as a strategic U.S. partner.
“On June 25-27, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton will meet with U.S. allies in London and Rome to discuss national security issues, andtravel to Moscow to discuss a potential meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a tweet following reports in Russian media that Bolton would make the trip to Moscow.
Bolton will be accompanied to Moscow by several White House staffers, including the national security council’s director for Russia, Fiona Hill, and the NSC’s director for southern Europe, Julia Friedlander.
Speculation about the location of a possible Trump-Putin summit has focused on Vienna, although some Russia-watchers have noted that the final match of the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament will be held on July 15 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium — just two days after Trump is scheduled to stop in Britain.
Trump has pursued a meeting with Putin at least since an April phone call in which the president invited Putin to visit the White House; there are no signs that Trump will host Putin anytime soon.
The two leaders have met before, holding a pair of meetings last summer at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Trump said at the time that he had pressed Putin on Russia’s 2016 election meddling. “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said at the time.
Trump startled G7 leaders earlier this month with his call for Russia’s readmission to the group. Among the group’s members, only Italy’s new populist prime minister echoed that call.
After his meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week, Trump explained his thinking on the subject.
“I think it’s better to have Russia in than out. Just like North Korea and everybody else, it’s much better to get along with them than if we don’t,” Trump told reporters.
Conley and other Russia experts say it’s far more complicated. They pointed to Trump’s fraying relationships with steadfast U.S. allies, which further deteriorated when the president reversed course and un-endorsed a joint statement backed by the other members of the G7 following a summit in Canada earlier this month.
“At a time when we are really challenging our allies very forcefully, we are meeting adversaries and potentially offering them concessions,” Conley said. “It’s as if he’s following President Putin’s playbook.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.