It’s all about Trump and Putin now

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

There were six peo­ple in the room when the pres­i­dent of the United States met the pres­i­dent of Rus­sia: two pres­i­dents, two for­eign min­is­ters, two trans­la­tors — with no aides, no ad­vis­ers, no ex­perts. There was noth­ing pre­pared in ad­vance: The U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, H.R. McMaster, said last week that there was “no spe­cific agenda — it’s re­ally go­ing to be what­ever the pres­i­dent wants to talk about.”

A nearly empty room. A blank slate. The Rus­sian-Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship, which has al­ways been atyp­i­cal, has now be­come strange, even sur­real. It is not even pre­dictable, in the way that most diplo­matic re­la­tion­ships are usu­ally more or less pre­dictable, be­cause it is not driven by the geopo­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic in­ter­ests of ei­ther Rus­sians or Amer­i­cans. It is driven, rather, by the per­sonal in­ter­ests of the two main play­ers.

The ac­tual agree­ments reached were un­der­whelm­ing: an open chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on Ukraine, what­ever that means; a cease-fire in part of Syria, which could be hope­ful but has been tried be­fore; some new am­bas­sadors. Far more im­por­tant, as I say, were the per­sonal stakes — and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin got most of what he wanted out of the meet­ing in the first few sec­onds. Out­play­ing Pres­i­dent Trump at his own silly game, he waited for the Amer­i­can to of­fer his hand. Cam­eras clicked and flashed; min­utes later, Rus­sian web­sites had the pho­to­graph — a pic­ture of Trump hold­ing out his hand to a haughty Putin — on their home pages.

And that was the point. For the Rus­sian leader, 99 per­cent of the value of this meet­ing was its use in do­mes­tic pro­pa­ganda. On Rus­sia’s Chan­nel One news sta­tion, a talk­show host wait­ing for the meet­ing to con­clude mar­veled at its length (more than two hours) and called it a sign that Trump con­sid­ered Putin more im­por­tant than any other leader there. Snide Twit­ter posts kept flash­ing on screen (“Trump is like a school­boy sit­ting next to Putin”). As an un­demo­cratic leader who pre­sides over a rocky economy, Putin needs to of­fer his pub­lic some rea­son to sup­port him. This was it: He is at the cen­ter of the world stage. He calls the shots. He is mu­nif­i­cently of­fer­ing so­lu­tions to prob­lems — in Ukraine, in Syria, in “cy­ber­se­cu­rity” — that he him­self has helped to cre­ate.

But look­ing at it from Trump’s point of view, the meet­ing was also suc­cess­ful. In light of the on­go­ing FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he had to raise the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. election, even though he was re­luc­tant to ad­mit there had been such a thing as re­cently as Thurs­day. But he man­aged it. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son point­edly de­clared af­ter­ward that Trump had “pressed” the sub­ject — and then dis­pensed with it: The two men wanted to move on and were not “re-lit­i­gat­ing” the past. The Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter, Sergei Lavrov, de­clared that Trump had “ac­cepted” Putin’s de­nial of in­ter­fer­ence as the truth. At the very least, the U.S. pres­i­dent can now tell him­self that he doesn’t need to bring up that dif­fi­cult sub­ject again.

From Trump’s com­ments go­ing back more than a decade, it seems that Trump also needed some­thing else from Putin: ac­cep­tance. I’m not sure why this is true, or which part of Trump’s psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file ex­plains it. But he has long ad­mired the Rus­sian dic­ta­tor, whom he has praised re­peat­edly and never crit­i­cized. “It’s an honor to meet you,” he said at the first en­counter. Maybe it’s the oli­garchic style rep­re­sented by Putin, who used money to get po­lit­i­cal power and then used po­lit­i­cal power to make money, and a lot more money than Trump; maybe it’s the way Putin also used his of­fice to em­power his friends and fam­ily, some­thing Trump does, too. From Tiller­son’s re­marks, it sounds like Trump got what he was look­ing for. There was “pos­i­tive chem­istry” be­tween the two men, he said: “Nei­ther one of them wanted to stop.” At one point, Me­la­nia Trump was sent in to break this love-fest up.

So there it is: Both men got what they wanted. Brag­ging rights for Putin; a new friend for Trump. As for the rest of us — it doesn’t mat­ter what we think. In this re­la­tion­ship, only two peo­ple mat­ter.

EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump meets with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 sum­mit on Fri­day in Hamburg.

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