At the Group of 20 sum­mit, who is the real Trump?

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - dan.balz@wash­post.com

Pres­i­dent Trump’s trip to Poland and the Group of 20 sum­mit in Ger­many is yet another re­minder that his pres­i­dency has the qual­i­ties of a three-ring cir­cus, with ac­tiv­ity com­ing from a va­ri­ety of di­rec­tions all at the same time and with no easy way in the mo­ment to de­cide what is most im­por­tant or cred­i­ble.

Two events dom­i­nated the pres­i­dent’s Euro­pean visit: his ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on Fri­day and his tone-set­ting speech about the fu­ture of the West a day ear­lier in War­saw. Each rightly drew world­wide at­ten­tion. Both could prove to be po­ten­tial foun­da­tional mo­ments in the Trump pres­i­dency.

But there were other dis­cor­dant mo­ments that dis­tracted from the big set pieces. They were a re­minder of how dif­fi­cult it is to find con­sis­tency or pre­dictabil­ity in Trump’s pres­i­dency. They in­cluded the pres­i­dent’s pub­lic equiv­o­ca­tion about Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion and his diss­ing of U.S. in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Poland, and then a bizarre and in­ac­cu­rate tweet on Fri­day morn­ing about John Podesta and Rus­sian hack­ing hours be­fore Trump was to see Putin.

No re­cent meet­ing be­tween world lead­ers came with such ad­vance hype as the ses­sion be­tween Trump and Putin. That’s be­cause no re­la­tion­ship has been more fraught for Trump, be­cause of Rus­sia’s ef­forts to med­dle in his be­half dur­ing the elec­tion back­dropped by Trump’s reg­u­lar ex­pres­sions of ad­mi­ra­tion for Putin.

This was more than an op­por­tu­nity for Trump and Putin to get ac­quainted and to take a mea­sure of each other, more than a mo­ment for photo ops and hand­shakes and other trap­pings that of­ten sig­nify lit­tle. Dangers from North Korea’s nu­clear pur­suits, the war in Syria (where the two agreed to try to en­force a cease-fire in the south­west­ern part of the coun­try) and the over­all fight against the Is­lamic State de­manded se­ri­ous and pre­sum­ably frank dis­cus­sions.

That their meet­ing lasted far longer than sched­uled — at two hours and 15 min­utes, it was more than twice as long as planned — was not a sur­prise. The lead­ers of the na­tions with the world’s big­gest nu­clear ar­se­nals and with clear dif­fer­ences about many is­sues had a po­ten­tial agenda that could have kept them to­gether hours longer. The lengthy meet­ing was a con­struc­tive sign, given the state of the re­la­tion­ship.

What isn’t known is what Trump, who is quick to judge the strengths and weak­nesses of peo­ple, made of Putin. Did he emerge from their two hours of talks and spar­ring with a dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion of the Rus­sian leader? Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said the two had good chem­istry. Trump is sus­cep­ti­ble to flat­tery. Did he leave with a feel­ing that Putin was more trust­wor­thy or less trust­wor­thy than when he en­tered the room?

Then, of course, there was the ele­phant in the room, which was Rus­sia’s role in the U.S. elec­tion. Pregame spec­u­la­tion ques­tioned whether Trump would even ad­dress it face to face. He did, but there were con­flict­ing ac­counts of what was said on that topic.

Tiller­son said Trump had started the meet­ing by rais­ing the is­sue of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence and that Putin had of­fered what is his stan­dard de­nial that the Rus­sians did any­thing ne­far­i­ous dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign.

Just how force­fully Trump pressed the is­sue — Tiller­son said the pres­i­dent brought it up more than once — is so far un­known. There was no im­me­di­ate in­di­ca­tion of any soft­en­ing of the sanc­tions im­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in re­tal­i­a­tion to the hack­ing, which has been a Rus­sian goal. But the read­outs sug­gested that Trump had no ap­petite for a sus­tained ar­gu­ment about Rus­sia’s be­hav­ior.

As he has sig­naled in other in­ter­ac­tions with other world lead­ers, Trump is trans­ac­tional and there­fore will­ing to look past such things as hu­man rights abuses and other trans­gres­sions that have drawn re­bukes from pre­vi­ous U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions as he pur­sues other goals. Whether that ap­proach will pro­duce de­sired re­sults hasn’t been given a full test, al­though it has not prompted the kind of tough ac­tion by China to­ward North Korea that Trump wants.

Tiller­son told re­porters in Ham­burg that nei­ther leader was ea­ger to re-lit­i­gate the past, that their dif­fer­ences on Rus­sian med­dling were “in­tractable” and that each was look­ing for a way to put the re­la­tion­ship be­tween these two ad­ver­saries on firmer and more pos­i­tive foot­ing.

On one key point, the ac­counts of the meet­ing were at odds. Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said Trump had lis­tened to Putin’s de­nial of in­ter­fer­ence, had ac­cepted those state­ments and had dis­missed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence. Tiller­son said Putin, de­spite the de­nials, had none­the­less agreed to talks about non­in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. elec­tions.

What Trump said in re­sponse to Putin’s de­nial is a crit­i­cal ques­tion, given what he said the day be­fore at a news con­fer­ence. Asked by re­porters on Thurs­day whether he fully ac­cepted U.S. in­tel­li­gence find­ings of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence, Trump again de­clined to give a clear an­swer. “I think it could very well have been Rus­sia, but I think it could well have been other coun­tries,” he said. Trump added that “a lot of peo­ple in­ter­fere” and have been for some time. “No­body re­ally knows for sure,” he said.

If that is Trump’s true be­lief, and he has said it of­ten enough over many months to make it seem as though it is what he thinks, then how ex­actly did he raise the is­sue di­rectly with Putin, and how force­fully did he press the case when Putin of­fered his de­nial? Hav­ing raised it with the Rus­sian leader, is that the end of it for the pres­i­dent, at least in terms of what he plans to do ei­ther to pun­ish the Rus­sians or ag­gres­sively look to pre­vent a re­peat per­for­mance in 2018 or 2020?

His true feel­ings may have come out on Fri­day morn­ing when he tweeted, “Ev­ery­one here is talk­ing about why John Podesta re­fused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Dis­grace­ful!” There are any num­ber of in­ac­cu­ra­cies in that tweet, and Podesta, on a road trip with his wife, pointed them out in a re­sponse pub­lished by The Wash­ing­ton Post. Trump’s tweet was a re­minder that, on mat­ters re­lated to Rus­sia and the elec­tion, the pres­i­dent con­tin­ues to look for di­ver­sions and di­gres­sions, rais­ing more ques­tions about what tran­spired in his meet­ing with Putin.

Trump’s speech in War­saw drew more pos­i­tive re­views than his ad­dress to NATO when he was in Europe in May. In Poland, he un­equiv­o­cally reaf­firmed the U.S. com­mit­ment to Ar­ti­cle 5 of the NATO treaty deal­ing with com­mon de­fense. In May, he point­edly did not.

His speech was na­tion­al­is­tic in tone, yet dif­fer­ent from some in the past. Crit­ics found the speech still too dark in tone. The Econ­o­mist called it a de­par­ture from past ad­min­is­tra­tions, and not that far from the “Amer­i­can car­nage” lan­guage of his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, a phi­los­o­phy that cham­pi­ons closed bor­ders and that does not cel­e­brate plu­ral­is­tic val­ues.

More pos­i­tively, the Wall Street Jour­nal said that, in his “af­fir­ma­tive de­fense of the western tra­di­tion,” Trump “of­fered the core of what could be­come a gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy.” The ed­i­to­rial ended with this state­ment, “It was an im­por­tant and, we hope, a defin­ing speech — for the Trump pres­i­dency and for Don­ald Trump him­self.”

That, like the ques­tion of what Trump truly thinks about Putin, Rus­sia and the in­ter­fer­ence in Amer­i­can democ­racy, is the per­sis­tent puz­zle about this pres­i­dent. Are speeches like the one he gave in War­saw gen­uine ex­pres­sions of his views or more the assem­bled con­sen­sus of his ad­vis­ers? Are his views ex­pressed best in read­outs by ad­vis­ers from his pri­vate dis­cus­sions with the likes of Putin, or by what he says dur­ing his in­fre­quent news con­fer­ences or his more fre­quent tweets? An­swers still to come.

CAR­LOS BAR­RIA/REUTERS

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, third from left, talks to Pres­i­dent Trump in Ham­burg on Fri­day.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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