The odds for success are slim and the political risk will be huge for President Trump when he sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland next month, but the dealmaker in chief is relishing his turn to go toe-to-toe with the former KBG colonel.
Mr. Trump is telling aides that he is convinced he can succeed where all of his predecessors failed when he attempts to build a better and mutually beneficial relationship with Mr. Putin. His confidence apparently is not shaken by the complication he faces from a caustic political environment in the U.S. and special counsel Robert Mueller’s long shadow looming over the summit.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Mr. Trump said of the summit as he toured a high-tech factory in Wisconsin. “If we could all get along, it would be great. The world has to start getting along.”
In Washington, the snarling and backbiting began Thursday as soon as the White House announced the July 16 summit in Finland’s capital, Helsinki.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the summit proved Mr. Trump’s priorities were “out of whack.”
“The American people have to wonder: Why is our president so committed to building a relationship with someone so dedicated to undermining our democracy and doing harm to our friends and allies?” Mr. Schumer said.
The political intrigue swirling around Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin fueled anticipation. The announcement received fanfare last seen for a U.S.-Russia summit when President George H.W. Bush met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki in 1990.
Mr. Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency that the Trump-Putin meeting would be a major landmark in history.
He also said the location makes perfect sense.
Finland has a tradition of hosting U.S.-Russian summits dating to Cold War days, when the country was a neutral buffer state and Helsinki served as a gateway between the communist East and the West.
Christopher Swift, a national security professor at Georgetown University and legal analyst on Russia sanctions, said there was always value to a U.S.-Russia dialogue but Mr. Trump was falling into a familiar trap.
“I see the Trump administration making the same mistakes with respect to accommodating Putin that the Obama administration did,” he said.
Every U.S. administration thinks it can do a better job with Russians than its predecessor, but early optimism has always resulted in a breakdown in the relationship by the end of the presidential term, said Mr. Swift.
For Barack Obama, it began with high hopes at a July 7, 2009, summit in Moscow. It ended with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
For George W. Bush, it started with “getting a sense of his soul” when looking into Mr. Putin’s eyes at a June 16, 2001, summit in Slovenia. It ended with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
“That’s because of Putin. It’s not because of us,” said Mr. Swift. “Republicans and Democrats have had the same problem for the last 20 years that Putin has been in power. It’s who the other side is.”
The meeting was scheduled as part of Mr. Trump’s visit to Europe, after a NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to Britain.
Coming on the heels of the NATO summit, the Trump-Putin meeting could highlight tensions within the alliance. Mr. Trump has rattled NATO with demands that member countries pay their fair share, and he is expected to make the demand again in July.
But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Trump-Putin summit reaffirmed the alliance’s policy of diplomacy with Moscow while maintaining a strong defense.
“Dialogue is not a sign of weakness; dialogue is a sign of strength. As long as we are strong, as long as we are united, we can talk to Russia,” he told reporters at a European Council meeting in Brussels.
He also has irked U.S. allies with conciliatory rhetoric about Moscow. This month, he suggested that Russia be readmitted to the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.
Russia was kicked out of what was the Group of Eight after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Trump said his discussion with Mr. Putin will include Ukraine and Syria, two places where their countries’ policies clash.
Mr. Putin’s malicious and destabilizing actions extend far beyond those hot spots, including meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and a March 4 nerve agent assassination attempt on a former Russian spy in Britain.
The Trump administration in April imposed sanctions on Russia for the election meddling and other malicious activity around the globe. The administration also joined other nations in expelling Russian diplomats after the March nerve-agent attack in Britain.
The loosening of sanctions likely will top Mr. Putin’s agenda and test Mr. Trump’s resolve.
Mr. Trump says he has been tougher on Russia than other recent presidents. He also is loath to forcefully condemn Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election as Democrats claim his victory was illegitimate.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the election by hacking into Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign email and by spreading disinformation on social media.
Although the Helsinki meeting will be the first official summit, the two leaders have met twice before. They had a brief meeting in November on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. Last July, they met during the Group of 20 meeting of world leaders in Hamburg, Germany.
At both meetings, Russia’s election hacking was a top issue.
After the Asia-Pacific summit, Mr. Trump said he again asked Mr. Putin about meddling in the election and the Russian president again denied it.
“I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “Look, I can’t stand there and argue with him. I would rather have him get out of Syria.”
The answer did not satisfy Mr. Trump’s political opponents in the U.S.
In a tweet early Thursday, Mr. Trump spurred a new round of recriminations by highlighting Russia’s denials.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!” he tweeted.