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Trump Kisses Up to Putin as the Leaders Disappear for Private Summit

The president says he hopes the Helsinki summit will start an ‘extraordinary relationship’ with Putin—for many, it’s already extraordinary enough.

Jamie Ross7.16.18 8:50 AM ET

The much-anticipated summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin started on one astonishing note of agreement—that the U.S. was responsible for the hostility between the two countries, not Russia.

The tweet from Trump blaming U.S. “foolishness” for the degeneration of the relationship between the two countries kicked off the day as the two men met in Helsinki, Finland, and it didn't take long for the Russian foreign ministry to quote-tweet the President saying simply: “We agree.”

That note of accord will be met with huge discomfort back home where most diplomats and senior officials believe that the tensions with Russia stem from Putin’s flagrant disregard for international law. In 2014, he annexed Crimea—the first such land-grab in Europe since the disintegration of the Soviet Union; his military was responsible for the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing 298 people; he backed President Assad's brutal regime in Syria; and is accused of using a deadly nerve agent to poison five people, killing one, in Britain.

On Friday, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller unsealed indictments claiming that Putin's intelligence apparatus had hacked into the email accounts of American politicians in order to subvert U.S. democracy.

Instead of sounding a note of caution, Trump announced that he hoped the two men would emerge from their private meeting—no aides or note-takers allowed—at the start of an “extraordinary relationship.”

The warm words followed a brief bout of macho posturing between two men who take pride in their strongman images. Putin used one of his favorite tactics: arriving late for the meeting to keep his opposite number waiting, only touching down in Finland after the meeting was due to begin.

Not to be outdone, Trump delayed his departure from the Hilton Helsinki Kalastajatorpp, arriving at the Presidential Palace after Putin despite the fact he'd been in the city since Sunday evening. Eventually, the meeting got underway an hour behind schedule at 2pm local time (7am EST).

As they sat down for the traditional handshake photo and some brief opening remarks, there were few smiles although there appeared to be a wink from Trump to Putin denting the tension.

There was a three-second handshake, and Trump praised Putin for the successful staging of the World Cup competition, saying that he’d enjoyed the final and semi-finals of the “beautiful” competition. “In the United States we call it soccer,” Trump explained to Putin via an interpreter.

Trump offered a brief insight into what the two men would be discussing in their closed-doors meeting—although what was missed out may have been more insightful, namely Russian interference in the U.S. election. “We have a lot of good things to talk about. We have discussions on everything from trade to military, to missiles, to nuclear, to China, we’ll be talking a little bit about China—our mutual friend President Xi,” he said.

Much has been said on whether Trump sees Putin as a friend or a foe. While sitting next to him, Trump told the gathered media that he would love to be closer to the Russian president.

“I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” he said. “I’ve been here not too long but it is getting close to two years, but I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. I’ve been saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard, over the years ... that getting along with Russia is a good thing not a bad thing.”

Many would say, in the wake of a tweet blaming the U.S. for the bad relationship with Russia, the relationship between Putin and Trump is already quite extraordinary enough.

Trump also hinted that he would be discussing nuclear disarmament with Putin, saying: “I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90% of the nuclear—and that’s not a good thing it’s a bad thing. I think we can hopefully do something about that because it is not a positive force it is a negative force so we’ll be talking about that among other things.”

Finally, as Trump wrapped up his opening remarks, eager to get started with his two-hour off-record meeting with Putin, he said: “And with that the world awaits and I look forward to our personal discussion which I think begins now and then we are going to meet our whole team.”

The world does await, and holds its breath.

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