- Jonathan Swan
- Jul 7
Trump and Putin, in pursuit of a deal
Sam Jayne / Axios
President Trump has his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. An administration official familiar with the planning tells me there'll only be a half dozen people in the room: Trump, Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators.
The big picture
A senior GOP foreign policy official sets the scene: "Temperamentally, [Trump and Putin] are very different. Both see the world as transactional and are deal-makers. Trump is a big picture, let's handle the details later, flashy salesman. Putin is sober and calculating, with a list of items to be secured, with respect for him and his country at the top of the list. The potential for cooperation should be very broad, and even easy. But circumstances are against anything substantive emerging. Congress is about to impose new sanctions on Russia and tightly tie Trump's hands. Why would Putin believe Trump can deliver on anything he might promise?"
Sources close to Trump say he wants to see if a broad deal with Russia (including on Syria, terrorism and Ukraine) is possible, but an administration official cautions that Trump's interactions with China's Xi Jinping have taught him a lesson: "keep in mind that [Trump] understands better now the limits to the 'personal'... i.e. Xi in Mar-a-Lago and Xi now."
Why this matters: Trump has long believed that many of America's diplomatic and trade problems aros because we didn't have the "Art of the Deal" dealmaker. Trump tried his charm on Xi — lavishing him in hospitality at Mar-a-Lago — but has already discovered that Xi cannot, or is unwilling to, restrain North Korea. He's now getting tough on Xi — selling weapons to Taiwan and sanctioning Chinese entities. Expect a blunter, more transactional Trump today with Putin.
It's futile trying to predict what Trump will say to Putin. Trump is known to discard talking points and change tack at the last minute.
Foreign officials tell us that when they prepare to speak with Trump they keep a set of objectives in mind but know they won't be able to stick to a script. The perceptive ones say they try to avoid scoring points against Trump. Many leaders bring gift-wrapped "victories" to meetings with Trump — such as major investments in America and new jobs he can brag about afterwards.
Go Deeper — Trump 101: How to deal with Donald
Trump's strategic options with Putin
The safe move, according to a senior Republican foreign policy official:
- "[T]o lie low, mumble something in public about a desire to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, such as North Korea, while also emphasizing they had a 'frank' discussion of the need to respect international norms, some reference to 'the need to work toward peace and security in Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders', etcetera."
- In this "safe" scenario, Trump would outmaneuver his waiting critics by confronting Putin over Russia's hacking of the presidential election.
- "That would be the smart thing to do, at least in terms of his political interests — to stop handing the Democrats and [hawks like] McCain the means to bash him…And who knows, he might listen to his advisers on that."
- "However," the official adds, "it's Trump and I can't imagine that part of him doesn't want to just shove it in those same people's faces, especially because the whole Russia thing is under the microscope and they want him to be running scared."
The more classically Trumpian move, per that same official:
- Would be for the President to not mention the election hacking, and to stick by his long-held instincts that the U.S. can forge better relations with Russia, do more business, perhaps strike a deal over Ukraine and fight terrorism in Syria together. In this scenario, Trump would treat Putin like a valued deal-partner. He'd ask for Putin's help with North Korea but probably wouldn't get anything substantive.
- "There's no way he's ever going to admit, even to himself, that he's wrong about the benefits of cooperating with Putin... and he isn't going to run scared when he believes there's nothing to the charges of cooperation with the Russians in the campaign, and that this is all political."
- "I assume he wants his face-to-face meeting with Putin to be positive and demonstrate his determination to work with Russia and to get Putin to ignore the political situation in D.C. What they will then say in public is something different, but I doubt Trump will be all that disciplined in terms of messaging."
The thing to remember about Trump
Both Trump and Putin want a deal, even though Putin was angered by Trump's decision to strike Syria in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.
Trump has always respected Putin and often excused his behavior, and Trump doesn't like confrontation — he defaults to his businessman persona in his face-to-face meetings, believing it's better to charm than to lecture.
Recall that he branded China as an economic enemy on the campaign trail, but when he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, lavished him with hospitality and afterwards pointedly refused to fulfill his campaign promise to declare China a currency manipulator. Also recall the friendly Oval Office scenes captured by Russian state photographers the last time Trump met with Russian officials.
Backdrop from Putin's perspective
Per a U.S. official close to the matter:
- "I expect Putin will go into this meeting assuming nothing much of substance will happen — not because it will not be friendly but because Trump's enemies won't let him deliver.
- "Putin understands the U.S. political system is in chaos. He's quite aware that Trump wants to deal but that hardline anti-Russia members of Congress and the Democrats in particular are determined to stop him and are even now trying to force new and harsher sanctions on Russia. The focus of the new sanctions bill is to tie Trump's hands and prevent him from warming relations with Russia.
- "Putin is more likely to be circumspect, making positive noises in their conversations and committing to nothing. And either wait until Trump is in a sufficiently strong political position to be able to make good on his genuine desire to cooperate on substantive matters or simply move on under the assumption that the U.S. is a permanent adversary.