Briefing: First Official Meeting of Presidents Trump and Putin

This week at the G-20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany, President Donald Trump will meet face-to-face for the first time as president with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin. With a Senate vote last week to tie the executive branch’s hands on Russia sanctions policy, moves by the Treasury Department to do the same, and an ongoing congressional investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, as well as a special council at the Department of Justice, President Trump’s ability to improve relations with Russia is seriously constrained. However, this week’s bilateral meeting offers the U.S. president the opportunity to remake his Russia policy on the spot and, potentially, to help redefine his relationship with Russia for the public as well. Here are three things to look for:

  1. “No specific agenda”: Perhaps to cushion against advice ignored by the president to avoid the meeting altogether, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is attempting to downplay its significance, telling reporters that “it won’t be different from our discussions with any other country…There is no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.” Previous disagreement over the format of the meeting between the White House and other members of the National Security apparatus finally shook out this week into a formal bilateral meeting. That the White House had its way confirms that President Trump will remain unpredictable in this meeting, keeping his agenda to himself, and, likely, continuing the behaviors that made policymakers nervous after the earlier meeting between himself and Russian Foreign Minister Dmitry Lavrov. The unstructured agenda means the presidents could discuss the election hacking issue, though President Trump’s downplay of the issue in a major speech in Poland Thursday makes this highly unlikely. Cooperation on counterterrorism efforts against ISIS in Syria are more likely to dominate the discussion, along with the continued stalemate over Crimea.
  2. Carrots to balance sticks: With Congress moving quickly to pass a Russia sanctions bill back in Washington, President Trump continues to look for carrots to offer Moscow. According to reports, White House aides were directed to identify possible concessions to offer as bargaining chips at the meeting. “Low hanging fruit” that keeps Congress out of play may include restoration of access to compounds in Maryland and New York from which Russian officials were removed in December as part of a package of punitive measures by the Obama White House in response to the DNC hacking. However, as Congress continues to investigate the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, analysts agree that the president would be mistaken to offer these concessions without a concrete trade from Mr. Putin. Meanwhile, the Russian government continues to threaten their own retaliatory measures.
  3. Pressure from other foreign government officials: Several important foreign leaders have come out in strong favor of continued sanctions against Russia. Among these: newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When UK Prime Minister Theresa May visited the White House a week after Trump’s inauguration, one of her priorities was to dissuade the new president from relaxing sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and covert military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Look for messages from these and other leaders in official statements as they seek to develop a more unified global stance on Russia in support of Ukraine and against Russian cyber interference.

The purpose of a first meeting between two presidents is, first of all, to develop rapport that will smooth future negotiations of critical matters. Don’t expect too much concrete content to emerge from their meeting. Rather, this week’s meeting in Hamburg will provide both President Trump and President Putin the primary opportunity to “reset” the optics of their personal relationship for their respective publics. Whether that will be successful or not, we shall wait and see.