Recall that back in October of 2013, when asked what he thought of Putin, Trump told David Letterman that he “met him once.” In November of that year, Trump told MSNBC that he had a relationship with him. In February of 2014 he went on "Fox & Friends" and said Putin contacted him during the Miss Universe pageant and was "so nice."
The following March, regarding Putin, Trump told the Daily Mail: “The relationship is great, and it would be great if I had the position I should have. That June he answered “yes,” when asked by Fox News' Sean Hannity if he’d had any contact with Putin.
After Trump announced that he was running for president in 2015 he started to say simply that he thought he'd "get along well" with the Russian president, but he stopped saying that he'd already met him. Although when right-wing radio host Michael Savage asked him directly if he had met Putin, Trump said, “Yes, yes, a long time ago. We got along great, by the way.”
When the issue came up in a Republican primary debate in November 2015 Trump said, "I got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that." (He later admitted that the program had just featured separate profiles on the two men.) By February 2016 he changed his tune again, saying at a rally that he had no relationship with Putin. Then in May of that year, when asked if he’d ever spoken to Vladimir Putin, Trump told Fox News’ Bret Baier, “Yeah, I have no comment on that, no comment.” Baier asked again and the candidate said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to comment because, let’s assume I did. Perhaps it was personal. You know, I don’t want to hurt his confidence. But I know Russia well."
By July, on the verge of the general election campaign, Trump was denying having any relationship with Putin of his government at all. He told a Miami CBS affiliate, "I have nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do, I never met Putin, I have nothing to do with Russia whatsoever.” He repeated that at the campaign debates with Hillary Clinton in the fall.
So, we really don't know whether Trump has met the Russian president before. He's lied about it one way or the other. We do know that he greatly admires him and has been one of his most strident defenders in the last few years, whether it was against accusations that Putin had poisoned political enemies, invaded a neighboring country or ordered the killing of opposition journalists. Indeed, Trump has been known to say that America does the same thing, implying it's no big deal if Putin does it too.
The Washington Post reported last week that there was a major battle within the White House over this meeting:
Many administration officials believe the U.S. needs to maintain its distance from Russia at such a sensitive time — and interact only with great caution. But Trump and some others within his administration have been pressing for a full bilateral meeting. He’s calling for media access and all the typical protocol associated with such sessions, even as officials within the State Department and National Security Council urge more restraint, according to a current and a former administration official.
Some advisers have recommended that the president instead do either a quick, informal “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the summit, or that the U.S. and Russian delegations hold “strategic stability talks,” which typically don’t involve the presidents.
One imagines that some of the political people were leery of the optics of Trump and Putin together in the middle of this Russiagate firestorm. And the policy people were undoubtedly terrified that Trump will say something that sends the world careening on a course nobody anticipated.
As it turns out, Trump put his foot down and they are going to do the whole dog-and-pony show, a "full bilateral meeting."
Most foreign policy experts think Trump should bring up the Russian election-meddling, but there's no indication he has any intention of doing that. After all, he is one of the country's greatest skeptics that Russia was involved at all. National security adviser H.R. McMaster recently told CNN that the Trump-Putin talks had "no specific agenda. It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about." What could go wrong?
We do know that Trump has asked for a list of "deliverables" he could offer to the Russian president when they meet. There was some speculation that it could include the return of the compounds in the U.S. that were seized by the Obama administration last winter as punishment for the reported meddling in the campaign. Needless to say, lifting the sanctions over the invasion of Crimea will certainly be at the top of Putin's wish list.
No one knows what Trump might ask in return. He certainly doesn't seem to be inclined to put human rights on the table and the administration is thinking of withdrawing from the international nuclear-weapons treaty (which may be the only thing keeping the world from a new arms race) so a nonproliferation pact is not likely to be high on the president's list.
But there is one thing Trump has talked about in the past that he could ask for in return for his "deliverables." Speaking about Putin back in 2015, Trump told Anderson Cooper:
He would never keep somebody like [Edward] Snowden in Russia. He hates Obama. He doesn't respect Obama. Obama doesn't like him either. But he has no respect for Obama. Has a hatred for Obama. And Snowden is living the life. Look if that -- if I'm president, Putin says, "Hey, boom, you're gone." I guarantee you this.
If Vladimir Putin wants to create some more chaos in the U.S., that would be one way of doing it. It would give Trump a big win in the eyes of the intelligence community that has been harshly critical. It would enrage many of the Russia skeptics on the left who have defended Trump's outreach to the Russian president. Europeans would be sharply divided, Americans would be arguing along old faultlines and the entire Russia story would go sideways.
I have thought from the day Trump won the election that Vladimir Putin could well see this as the perfect inauguration present for his friend. If he can get Trump to agree to loosen sanctions or otherwise reward him handsomely -- in exchange for something that costs him nothing, and could be viewed as ridding himself of a problem he doesn't need -- Putin will have proved that he, not Donald Trump, is the world's greatest dealmaker. And Donald Trump won't even know he's been played like a balalaika.