Donald Trump met one-on-one with Vladimir Putin behind closed doors on Monday in a long-awaited summit overshadowed by the US president blaming his own country’s past “foolishness and stupidity” for the two powers’ hostile ties.
Just days after a special prosecutor indicted 12 Russian agents for stealing documents from the Democratic Party to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election, Trump went into his talks with Putin without a word of criticism for Moscow.
Instead, he tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The Russian foreign ministry “liked” his words and tweeted back: “We agree”.
Trump’s opponents at home were furious, with one Democratic congressman saying that Trump had turned the White House into “a propaganda arm for the Kremlin”.
After two hours alone in a room with their interpreters, Trump and Putin convened a more traditional-style bilateral meeting, seated at a large conference table surrounded by senior officials from both countries. Trump called the private talks with the Kremlin leader a “good start”.
Earlier Trump began the meeting with warm words for Putin, seated next to the Russian leader in an ornate presidential palace in Finland, and said it was a longstanding goal of his to improve US-Russian relations.
“I think we will have an extraordinary relationship. I hope so. I’ve been saying it, and I’m sure you’ve heard over the years, and as I campaigned, that getting along with Russia is good thing, not a bad thing,” he said.
But to Trump’s critics, the friendly words lay in the shadow of his extraordinary denunciation of his own country’s prior policies, which he tweeted hours before Putin arrived.
In his public remarks at the outset, he mentioned none of the issues that have lately brought US-Russian relations to the lowest point since the Cold War: Moscow’s annexation of territory from Ukraine, its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, British accusations that it poisoned a spy, as well as the alleged meddling in both US and European elections.
“Our relationship with Russia is strained because of the very malign actions he’s refusing to take Russia to task for,” tweeted Democratic US Representative Gregory Meeks, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Though relations were worse during the Cold War, at least then the US Presidency wasn’t a propaganda arm for the Kremlin.”
The Kremlin has played down expectations for the summit. It said it did not expect much from the meeting but hoped it would be a “first step” to resolving a crisis in ties.
“Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along.”
However, that the summit was taking place at all was a victory for Russia, which has long blamed irrational “Russophobia” for its geopolitical semi-pariah status.