Trump's next foreign policy coup: A summit with Vladimir Putin?

Trump and Putin have met twice since Trump became president, but this would be their first official summit

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 2, 2018 9:28AM (EDT)

 (Getty/AP/Photo montage by Salon)
(Getty/AP/Photo montage by Salon)

It isn't just North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who may wind up meeting with President Donald Trump. None other than Russian President Vladimir Putin — the man at the center of the ongoing scandal involving potential collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government — may also participate in a summit meeting with Trump in the near future.

A senior administration official explained on Friday that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has been in Washington to help set up the meeting, according to The Wall Street Journal. The official told the Journal that "this has been an ongoing project of Ambassador Huntsman, stretching back months, of getting a formal meeting between Putin and Trump."

If the summit happens, it would be the third time that Trump and Putin have met since the former became president, although on the previous two occasions their interactions have been incidental. In July, the two men talked for two hours (twice as long as had been planned) on the sidelines at the Group of 20 summit in Germany. Four months after, the two also talked during a summit in Vietnam. On both occasions, the exact nature of their conversation was unclear, although Trump later reported that Putin insisted he had not meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

A summit meeting between Trump and Putin now would be expected to focus on foreign policy matters that concern both nations, including the Syrian war, the Russian occupation of Ukraine and the issue of controlling the development and spread of nuclear weapons.

An early hint that a Trump-Putin summit might take place came in April when Yuri Ushakov, a Putin aide who used to represent the Kremlin in Washington, told the press that Trump had invited Putin to Washington during a phone call on March 20. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that this was the case in April, telling reporters that "the two had discussed a bilateral meeting in the ‘not-too-distant future’ at a number of potential venues, including the White House."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also told a Russian news agency in April that "President Putin is ready for such a meeting."

One major factor that could delay the summit, of course, is the ongoing negotiation with North Korea about a possible summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Depending on whether that meeting pans out and how it is scheduled, a Trump summit with Putin could wind up being delayed.

Trump's relationship with Russia has raised serious questions since he took office. It is the unanimous conclusion of American intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in order to elect Trump and due to animus they felt toward Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. It is also believed that Russia will attempt to meddle in American elections again in the 2018 midterm contests. Trump also has a number of business ties to Russia, with his son Donald Trump Jr. admitting in 2008 that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

Trump has also hired a number of people who wound up having to leave him because of their ties to Russia, including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort (who worked for a pro-Russia puppet government in Ukraine), former national security adviser Michael Flynn (who was later convicted of lying to the FBI about a conversation he had with Russian officials) and others including his former adviser Roger Stone, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

Russia has also been involved in other controversial news headlines in recent weeks. Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who has been an outspoken critic of Putin's regime, worked with Ukrainian authorities to fake his own death earlier this week in order to catch people who Ukrainian law enforcement believe were hired by the Russian government to kill him, according to Newsweek. Similarly Bill Browder, an American-born financier who has successfully pushed for economic sanctions against Russia in response to their human rights violations, was arrested in Madrid by Interpol due to Russian attempts to punish him (he was ultimately released because there is no good cause to arrest him), according to The Guardian.

"It’s a kleptocracy. And stealing lots and lots of money, they have to keep it safe somewhere and go spend it somewhere. By coming up with the idea of imposing visa bans, freezing assets, denying access to banks ... It puts that whole model at risk," Browder told The Guardian in order to explain why he believes economic sanctions are an effective way of fighting the Putin regime.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Donald Trump Russia Syria Ukraine Vladimir Putin