Even before Vladimir Putin met with Donald Trump in Japan on Friday, the Russian president was taking a victory lap. “The liberal idea,” by which he appeared to mean democratic values, has “outlived its purpose,” Putin told the Financial Times.
And when Trump, before the meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 in Osaka, was asked if he’d tell the Russian president not to mess with next year’s election in the United States of America, Trump turned to Putin and smirked: “Don’t meddle in the election,” he said, wagging his finger a little as if he were advising Putin not to eat a piece of iffy sushi. Putin laughed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiled.
The Mueller Report, which Trump and his attorney general have lied about massively—employing what the Germans used to refer to as “colossal untruth”—in fact described in irrefutable detail what it termed “sweeping and systematic” interference in the 2016 elections. And there is no doubt that Russian interference contributed to Trump’s Electoral College victory.
Apparently, the idea that might happen again strikes the increasingly confident American president and his people as more than a little amusing. And after watching bits of the Democratic field’s second-heat debate, Trump was even more triumphalist.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited health care. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?” Trump tweeted, apparently taking this as proof that he would win in 2020: “That’s the end of that race!”
This was Trump’s first meeting with Putin since the Mueller Report was published. On the plane on the way to Osaka, when asked whether he would raise the issue of election-meddling, Trump told a reporter, “What I say to him is none of your business.”
Sure, why would the American people have an interest in what their president says to a murderous ex-spy and irredentist aggressor who helped him get elected?
When the media did shuffle into the room where Trump and Putin were shaking hands, the U.S. president welcomed his Russian counterpart into another private joke at our expense.
“Get rid of them. ‘Fake news’ is a great term, isn’t it?” Trump said. “You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do.”
Putin replied in English: “We also have. It’s the same.”
The difference is that 21 journalists are thought to have been killed in Russia since Putin became president 19 years ago.
Add dead journalists to the long list of topics that Trump probably would smirk about in private as he continues to pursue a relationship with Putin characterized by admiration and, it would seem, affection, despite the bipartisan insistence of Congress that a price must be imposed on Russian aggression.
Last year, the scheduled G-20 bilateral between Trump and Putin was scrubbed when the Russians seized Ukrainian patrol boats and jailed the sailors on them. Trump had said there’d be no new meeting until they were released. That hasn’t happened.
Neither is there the slightest sign that Putin will withdraw from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which he seized and annexed in 2014. Nor has he withdrawn support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who’ve waged a war costing 13,000 lives while displacing more than a million people. Not much chance Trump would mention the 2014 downing of a Malaysian civilian airliner by a Russian missile, either.
Would Trump bring up Putin’s efforts to murder in Britain with an exotic chemical weapon a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the West? Outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May is still worked up about that, at least officially. But Trump? Nah.
How about that former U.S. Marine who’s been languishing in Russia’s most fearsome prison since December on charges that stink of entrapment and chicanery? Maybe just a little mention there. What would it cost Vlad to let Paul Whelan go? And that would give Trump such a win! He loves wins. (Just look at his self-congratulation when Kim Jong Un took hostages after Trump’s election, then let them go.)
Maybe Trump thinks Putin will help him pressure Tehran to surrender to U.S. demands that it renegotiate the nuclear accord Trump pulled out of. But Iran and its proxies were and remain Putin’s allies, most importantly in Syria. And he regards his adventure in the Levantine killing fields as a great triumph, saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This at the cost of half a million dead and millions more displaced, including the refugees whose exodus to Europe in 2015 has divided society and made it ripe, from Putin’s point of view, for ideological conquest.
Putin’s best buddies in Europe—France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—bathe in the incandescent glow of hate and fear that he and his propaganda machine do so much to promote. And of course, so does Trump. Which is why Putin praised him for his brutal efforts to stop migrants and refugees from entering the United States.
Give asylum to people with every reason to fear for their own and their families’ safety in their home countries? You know, those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as it says on the Statue of Liberty? Obviously that’s one of those obsolete Western notions. “This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected,” Putin said, echoing Trump (or is it vice versa)?
When the none-of-your-business bilateral was over, the two of them walked out together to greet other G-20 leaders assembling for a group picture. Trump had dissed several of them earlier in the summit, mainly for commercial reasons. Of course, they were leaders of democratic countries that share those Western values that both Putin and Trump, with a smirk, consider obsolete.