Two extra handshakes of average duration initiated by President Donald Trump and returned by President Vladimir Putin. Sitting so that Trump’s height isn’t an advantage. No red power ties, both dressed in similar drab Soviet-era colors. Same-width manspreads. Trump assessing their talks as “very, very good” that extra “very” slightly obsequious along with over-nodding. Putin saying “talks are never enough.”
Advantage: Putin because there was a meeting at all and he showed no neediness.
The meeting lasted over two hours, which may be the only thing that surpassed expectations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it went on so long—despite him and the first lady popping her head in to end it so they could take their seat next to French President Emanuel Macron at a concert at the Philharmonic—because the two leaders were having such a great “connection.”
This despite the fact that, even if reluctantly, Trump brought up Russia’s meddling in our election first thing. Putin denied everything but acknowledged the danger of cyberthreats and agreed to explore how the two countries can work together to deal with them. Trump aides say our president was tough on Putin and didn’t accept his denial. The other side says nyet—that Trump objected and then moved on.
In his read-out, Tillerson said there will never be agreement on the subject. That there is no benefit in “litigating the past” but only in “moving forward,” which sounds a lot like dropping the subject.
No wonder Putin admitted nothin’ about nothin’. Hours before, in a tweet, Trump blamed the hacking on a Clinton aide, John Podesta, a victim of it. Two days earlier in Warsaw, Trump said, “The culprit could be Russia, but I think it was probably other people or countries… Nobody really knows for sure.”
It’s only Trump who doesn’t know for sure and he’s even more invested in denial than Putin. An admission of guilt would have hurt Trump as much as the Russian leader, requiring Trump do two things he doesn’t want to do: accept that his victory over Hillary Clinton is tainted by hacking and then doing something about it.
Trump is so loath to do anything to interfere in his nascent relationship with Putin, the Senate acted to curb it, passing a bill 98-2 to require congressional approval before Trump does anything on sanctions. Would anyone be surprised if before the House votes on the Senate bill, Trump gives Putin back those vacation compounds in New York and Maryland that Obama took away?
Not only does Trump have a weakness for a man’s vacation compounds but he harbors the delusion that he’s the president who will go down in history having made a Grand Bargain with Russia and, incidentally, found a way for his son-in-law to borrow money from a Kremlin bank. Thus all the talk from Tillerson about their good “chemistry.”
The two also agreed to work on a cease-fire in southwest Syria, where Russia has backed dictator Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. has supported rebel groups fighting to oust him. After Friday’s meeting, Tillerson said, “We have a very clear picture of who will provide the security forces,” but added that “we have a few more details to work out.” You can be sure the devil will definitely be in those details since in wider Syria, Russia has its own plans at odds with the U.S.
Tillerson said Trump and Putin hoped a cease-fire in Syria could help America and Russia discuss a political solution for China and North Korea. Russia, said Tillerson, has a different view of and economic relationship with China and North Korea, but understands the U.S. resolve there.
If Putin was listening to Trump’s response the day before on North Korea’s launch of a long-range ICBM, resolve might not be the first word to come to mind. Trump warned North Korea that he had “some pretty severe things tucked away that he might do,” which brought Secretary of Defense General James Mattis out to clarify that there is no military retaliation planned.
No need, really. Trump’s language was otherwise so mushy and vague. He chided Dear Leader for his “very, very bad behavior” as if he might send him to his room. “It’s a shame that they’re behaving this way,” Trump said. “Something will have to be done.”
The only impact that might have on North Korea is if it presents the element of surprise that a world leader would speak in such nostrums. Earlier Trump had thrown up his hands on getting China on his side after hosting President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April. After Xi filled Trump in on his country’s history with North Korea, Trump concluded that getting China’s help in that crisis would not be “as simple as people would think.”
Not as simple as Trump thinks but maybe he now sees the shark-filled pool he’s now swimming in after his time with Putin. The crafty technician with the skill of a chess master and the soul of a KGB agent arrived with an agenda, a strategy, and a psychological profile of Trump committed to memory. And as his second, Putin had the even craftier Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov whom Trump seems to like a lot better than his own secretary of state. They yukked it up in the Oval Office over the Russia-style firing of former FBI director and “nut job” James Comey.
Trump went to Hamburg thinking he could either charm Putin or roll him a la The Art of the Deal, as if the autocrat is a whale debating his percentage of the take at the blackjack table. At his side, Trump had Tillerson, a novice with a foreign policy—or two—of his own. Total knowledge and experience in the four chairs: Russia, nearly a century; U.S., six months.
But maybe, just maybe, the meeting is proof that a man can grow in the presidency and that this one might finally be making that much-talked-about pivot to being presidential. After all, he did raise the election hacking against his own instincts. One of his reasons for liking Putin (more than the “insane” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the preening Macron of the too-long and firm handshake, and the list goes on) is that Putin (he thinks) likes him. He wouldn’t want to jeopardize all they have in common—hatred of the press, fake news, and dissidents—with unpleasantness. But aides convinced Trump that Putin would think he was a loser if Trump tiptoed around the whole hacking thing. The sigh you hear is relief.
Before the meeting, Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster lowered expectations with the announcement that the agenda would be “whatever the president wants to talk about.”
It wasn’t and therein lies progress. Nothing terrible happened. Let Beethoven’s 9th Symphony play on at the G-20 symphony, its Ode to Joy sometimes called the Ode to Freedom played as the national anthem during the division of Germany. It’s not that Trump won but that he didn’t create an international incident which he would have to cover up in a series of overwrought tweets. Peace may not be at hand but neither is war.