World News

Trump-Putin Meeting Starts in Helsinki

Posted July 16, 2018 8:47 a.m. EDT

President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia are meeting at a presidential palace in Helsinki for their first summit.

Trump and Putin began one-on-one talks Monday at an exceptionally awkward time, just days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But Trump blamed the United States for the tensions between the countries, not Russia.

Speaking briefly with reporters before the two men went behind closed doors, Trump said “we will have discussions on everything from trade to military to nuclear,” as well as relations with China, but he did not mention Russia’s interference in the 2016 election that brought Trump to power.

The meeting will cap a weeklong trip to Europe in which Trump made his distaste for diplomatic norms abundantly clear: He caused turmoil at the NATO summit and during a visit to Britain by demanding that allies spend more on defense, saying that Prime Minister Theresa May was mishandling Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, advising her to sue the EU over the issue and calling the bloc a trade “foe.”

The meeting Monday will be closely scrutinized for signs of whether Trump is friendlier to his Russian counterpart than he was to the NATO leaders or to May. Putin, as is his habit, was late, keeping the U.S. president waiting.

Putin proposed the meeting in March during a phone call with Trump, and U.S. officials say the Russian leader desperately needs Washington to ease sanctions that have squeezed his country’s economy and oligarchs.

U.S. observers on both sides of the political aisle fear that Trump, who dislikes policy briefings and has said he needed no preparation for the meeting, could be an easy mark for manipulation by Putin, a former intelligence agent whom Trump has refused to criticize directly.

Trump Blames U.S. for Tensions with Russia

Trump began the day of the meeting by blaming the United States for its poor relationship with Russia, casting aspersions on the federal investigation into Moscow’s cyberattack on the 2016 presidential election, even as he said he felt “just fine” about meeting with Putin.

In a pair of tweets sent Monday before he headed for breakfast at Mantyniemi Palace, a residence of the Finnish president, Trump twice branded the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference the “Rigged Witch Hunt.” That investigation, and “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” he wrote, are why the United States’ relationship with Russia “has NEVER been worse.”

He did not mention factors that are usually cited in the West as causes for friction with Moscow: Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for rebels in Ukraine and for the Assad regime in Syria, its meddling in the elections of the United States and in those of other countries, and the nerve agent poisonings in England that the British government has said the Kremlin was behind.

The president’s tweet drew praise and a “like” from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Trump also lashed out at former President Barack Obama for the second day in a row, tweeting that his predecessor had failed to intervene to stop Russia’s hacking because he “thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election.”

The messages suggested that Trump, who has never directly condemned Putin for the election meddling and has cast doubt on whether he even agrees with his own intelligence community’s finding that it was carried out by Moscow, has not changed his stance in the wake of the indictment last week of 12 Russian agents in the attack.

Trump has said that he will ask Putin about the meddling during their talks but that he does not expect the Russian president to admit culpability and that the issue is primarily an obstacle to his desire to improve relations between the United States and Russia.

At the breakfast with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and his wife, Trump telegraphed confidence about the summit meetings, saying, “We’ll do just fine.”

Trump Cites Trade and Nuclear Weapons as Agenda Items, But Not Election Meddling

Trump indicated, moments before he and Putin began their private meeting, that trade and reducing their nations’ nuclear arsenals would be high on the agenda.

But he did not mention the issue that has dogged him at home, the Russian interference in the 2016 election. Just days ago, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for computer hacking intended to influence the election.

He also did not mention Russia’s annexation of Crimea or allegations that it had used a nerve agent on British soil.

“We will have discussions on everything from trade to military to nuclear,” and “a little bit about China — our mutual friend, President Xi,” Trump said, as he and Putin posed for photographs before going behind closed doors.

“I think we have great opportunities as two countries that, frankly, we have not been getting along too well,” he said, against a backdrop of three American and three Russian flags. “I think the world really wants to see us get along.”

“We are the two great nuclear powers,” Trump said. “We have 90 percent of the nuclear, and that’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing.”

He also praised Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup, which ended on Sunday.

“I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup, one of the best ever,” Trump said. “It was beautifully done, so congratulations.”

He said that he and Putin would first meet one-on-one, and then with advisers.

After Berating NATO Allies, Trump Says They’re ‘Thanking Me’

Trump, who disparaged U.S. allies during last week’s NATO meeting, tweeted Monday that he had “received many calls from leaders of NATO countries thanking me” for pressuring other nations to spend more on their militaries.

He did not name the leaders or their countries.

The president has been similarly short on specifics about his claim Thursday that in response to his demands, other member nations had pledged major increases in military spending. He did not name countries, give dollar amounts or timetables.

The official communiqué from the meeting committed the countries to the same spending increases they agreed to four years ago, and the president of France and the prime minister of Italy both said after Trump spoke that no new commitments were made.

Trump unsettled the alliance — even appearing to suggest behind closed doors, some diplomats said, that the United States could withdraw from it — in ways that analysts said could work to the benefit of Putin.

But in his tweet, Trump called the summit “truly great” and “inaccurately covered by much of the media.”

And at a breakfast Monday with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, Trump said his tactics had been just the tough love needed to strengthen the alliance.

“I enjoyed being with you a couple of days ago,” Trump told Niinisto. “NATO has, I think, never been stronger. It was a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love. I appreciated your support.”

It was not clear what support Trump was referring to. Niinisto attended the NATO gathering, but Finland is not a NATO member, so he would not have been in a position to help the president’s push for more military spending.

For Putin, a Russian Jet, a Russian Limousine and a Delay

Putin arrived in Finland aboard a Russia-made Ilyushin-96 jet from Moscow and headed into Helsinki in his new, Russian-made limousine, which is even bigger than the U.S. president’s state car, known as the “Beast.”

Russia’s national airline, Aeroflot, and other Russian carriers mostly ditched Russian jets years ago and now fly planes made in the United States by Boeing and in Europe by Airbus. But Putin, who has poured billions of dollars into supporting Russia’s flagging aircraft industry, has stuck with the Ilyushin, a Soviet-era design.

As often happens with the Russian leader, Putin ran late — his airplane did not land until after 1 p.m. — leaving Trump cooling his heels in his guesthouse for almost an hour past his scheduled time to leave for the palace. They shook hands in front of the news cameras before heading into private talks, an hour behind schedule.

Protesters Are Peeved by Both Presidents

There is no giant balloon portraying Trump as a big angry baby in diapers in the Finnish capital as there was in London last week and in Edinburgh on Saturday. In Helsinki, the final stop of Trump’s disruption tour of Europe, he has to share being the target of protesters’ ridicule and rage with Putin.

Shortly before Trump arrived in Finland on Sunday, thousands of protesters marched through the center of Helsinki in a display of equal-opportunity anger, directed at both leaders.

“Trump-Putin — the two-headed monster,” read a hand-painted sign carried by Paulina Pepaola, a Finnish woman who joined the march from a park near the central train station to Senate Square.

“I am totally against both of them,” she said. “They are working together. Putin controls Trump.”

Tapio Waren, a businessman in the construction industry, said, “each one has such terrible policies it is hard to say who is worse,” he said.

More than 280 billboards around Helsinki assailed Putin and Trump as enemies of press freedom. “Dear Mr. President, welcome to the land of free press,” read one giant digital sign, toggling between English and Russian.

A rally in Senate Square brought together rights activists, supporters of Ukraine, opponents of President Bashar Assad of Syria, champions of LGBT rights, #MeToo campaigners and evangelical Christians. The only common thread was their shared dismay that Helsinki was hosting the first formal summit meeting between two such unpopular leaders.

“Trump and Putin are not welcome in Helsinki. Go home,” read a banner unfurled outside the colonnaded entrance to Helsinki Cathedral, which dominates the square.

Not everyone was inhospitable. A Russian-Finnish friendship association, RUFI, announced that it would hold its own rally in Senate Square on Monday to welcome Putin and Trump, and “to show our highly placed guests that not everybody in Finland has a negative view of world leaders, that not all thirst for conflict, even war.”

But Trump is Less Popular in Finland than Putin

Juho Rahkosen, a pollster in Finland who says he supports some of Trump’s policies, wishes he had better news for him but can’t ignore the numbers: The American leader is so deeply unpopular in Finland — a Nordic nation of 5.5 million — that even Putin has more fans.

A survey commissioned by the magazine Seura and conducted by Taloustutkimus, a leading Finish polling organization, found that 83 percent of Finns — and 91 percent of Finnish women — have a negative view of Trump compared with 75 percent for Putin.

“I am ashamed to have a guest in our country while I am publishing such terrible numbers,” said Rahkosen, the research manager at Taloustutkimus.

Even supporters of The Finns, a populist, anti-immigrant political party formerly known as the True Finns, don’t like Trump much, though they are slightly less down on him than is the population as a whole.

“Unfortunately, Finland has extremely negative attitudes towards Trump — I’m afraid there is not much he can do about this,” Rahkosen added, noting that Trump displays “somewhat the opposite” of the measured honesty, discipline and trust in global institutions that Finns expect in a leader.

The Stakes are So High Even Some Trump Aides are Holding Their Breath

That Trump and Putin are to meet one on one — with interpreters present but no advisers — has added an element of unpredictability to a high-stakes encounter.

Trump’s perceived admiration of Putin, his urging at the recent Group of 7 meeting that Russia be readmitted despite its annexation of Crimea and his efforts to minimize U.S. intelligence about the impact of Moscow’s cyberattacks on the 2016 election have foreign policy experts and some in the White House wondering what he may give away to Putin — deliberately or inadvertently.

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, on Friday compared the danger of Russian cyberattacks with the warnings the United States had of increased terrorism threats before the Sept. 11 attacks. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

He said Russia should be held to account.

Allies including Britain say they welcome the Helsinki meeting, but May warned that it must address Russian “malign activity.” (Russia is the chief suspect in an attack using a nerve agent on British soil that led to a woman’s death.)

Some analysts also note that while Trump abhors briefing memos, Putin will be well schooled before the meeting. Analysts say the fact that the meeting is occurring at all is already a victory of sorts for the Russian leader.

White House advisers have described the summit meeting as a chance to reset a tense relationship, and Trump has dismissed concerns, mocking those who point to Putin’s past as a spymaster, suggesting that he could manipulate the American leader.

“'You know, ‘President Putin is KGB,’ and this and that,” Trump said. “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people. Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life.”