President Trump walked into a meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin expecting to get little or nothing out of high-stakes talks, while inviting criticism from Democrats and Republicans back home for his kid-glove treatment of the former KGB officer.
Sitting down with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Mr. Trump was armed with new evidence of Moscow’s hacking during 2016 U.S. presidential election campaigning. But he was refusing — at least in public — to use that knowledge to pressure the Russian president aggressively.
“I go in with low expectations. I’m not going in with high expectations. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with CBS News.
His rock-bottom expectations built a bulwark against the inevitable onslaught of criticism from Mr. Trump’s political rivals in Washington. But the low bar he set also underscored their complaints that he lacked a solid agenda for a one-on-one dialogue with a skilled and potentially dangerous opponent.
Asked in the interview what his goal for the summit was, Mr. Trump said, “I’ll let you know after the meeting.”
The president thinks the value of the summit is in dialing back the tension between the U.S. and Russia, avoiding conflicts and potentially finding areas of cooperation.
He wants to improve relations between the U.S. and one of its chief adversaries, although Mr. Trump prefers the term “competitor.”
The two presidents have met twice before, first on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July 2017 and then at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November. But they have never had a formal summit.
The top issues for the Helsinki talks are Russia’s meddling in elections in the U.S. and Europe, its annexation of Crimea, and the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
They also are discussing agreements on nuclear weapons reductions and nonproliferation.
Mr. Trump should have headed into the meeting in a strong position after a NATO summit in Brussels, where he succeeded in prodding allies to increase defense spending, and after a visit to the United Kingdom, where he strengthened that alliance.
But the president stirred concerns about the summit at every stop.
He suggested that he could recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which was condemned in a joint statement at the NATO summit just days earlier.
Asked Friday about relenting to Russia on the status of Crimea, Mr. Trump said, “We’re going to see what happens” at the summit.
Mr. Trump lumped in the European Union with Russia and China on a list of America’s foes around the world.
“Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive. They want to do well, and we want to do well.”
Although the president specified that the EU was a trading foe, the remark undercut his position as leader of the free world as he met with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Trump consistently refused to call out Mr. Putin after 12 Russian military intelligence officers were indicted in the U.S. on charges of hacking related to the 2016 presidential election. The indictment came from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election and accusation of Trump campaign collusion.
The 12 officials work for the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which is the Russian military’s foreign spy agency. It is unthinkable that the GRU would launch an attack on the U.S. election without the knowledge of Mr. Putin.
Mr. Trump, who is still sensitive to Democrats’ attempts to delegitimize his election win by blaming it on Russian meddling and hacking, did not accuse Mr. Putin or publicly put him on the spot. Instead, the president claimed vindication because no Americans were indicted.
He directed his criticism at what he calls “fake news” and at the Obama administration, which he slammed for allowing Russian spies to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Why didn’t Obama do something about it? Because he thought Crooked Hillary Clinton would win, that’s why. Had nothing to do with the Trump Administration, but Fake News doesn’t want to report the truth, as usual!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Top Democrats called on Mr. Trump, who was briefed on the indictments before they were publicly announced Friday, to cancel the meeting in light of the developments.
Democrats and Republicans urged Mr. Trump to demand the extradition of the 12 intelligence officers.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday to impress the importance of confronting Mr. Putin and refusing to relax U.S. sanctions on Russia.
“For President Trump to meet with President Putin without expressing the outrage of the American people and securing real progress would be terrible for the United States and the security of our election system,” Mr. Schumer said.
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he feared Mr. Trump would get played at a private meeting with Mr. Putin, where they would be accompanied only by interpreters.
“Vladimir Putin is a trained KGB agent. He may come in with maps of Syria or maps of Ukraine, and frankly I think he’ll take advantage of this president, who we know doesn’t do much prep work before these meetings,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We need other individuals from his administration in the room so we know at least someone will press the Russians on making sure they don’t interfere in future U.S. elections,” Mr. Warner said.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he would advise Mr. Trump to put the extradition issue at the top of the agenda.
“Your first request of Vladimir Putin needs to be, ‘Tell us which airport we can pick up the 25 Russians that tried to interfere with the fundamentals of our democracy,’” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
A previous indictment accused 13 Russians of using social media to sow divisions in the U.S. during the 2016 election season, but nothing came of that.
Asked about extraditions in a CBS News interview, Mr. Trump said he “hadn’t thought of that.”
“I’ll be asking about it,” he said. “But again, this was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration.”
John R. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, said it would be “pretty silly” to ask Mr. Putin to extradite the Russian spies because the U.S. and Russia don’t have an extradition agreement.
However, signaling that he expected the indictment to be part of the discussion in Helsinki, Mr. Bolton said it strengthened Mr. Trump’s hand.
“It shows that the justice system, the Department of Justice, are aware of these Russian efforts at election meddling, and I think the president can put this on the table and say, ‘This is a serious matter. We need to talk about it,’” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to Russia, downplayed Mr. Trump’s remarks on Crimea, saying any change of policy was “highly unlikely.”
“The agenda is the president’s. Everything will be his call. But I think it is highly unlikely that you’ll see any change in Crimea,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Mr. Huntsman, who is in Helsinki for the bilateral meetings, insisted that Russia’s takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 is on the agenda.
“This was a violation of international law. What we’ve seen in eastern Ukraine is a violation of international law,” he said, referring to Russia’s involvement in ongoing fighting there. “We have some very real issues.”
The ambassador didn’t know whether Mr. Trump would pressure Mr. Putin about extraditions.
He also said the indictments were not surprising.
“I don’t think the details are a surprise to folks who have followed this,” Mr. Huntsman said. “That now makes probably almost 30 Russians who have been rolled up by the Mueller indictment. That investigation continues. And I think the bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did.”