Trump, Putin Lead Press Conference After 2-Hour Meeting

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on August 7, 2018 1:03 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

We have breaking news this morning out of Helsinki, where President Donald Trump has now wrapped up his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting went on longer than scheduled. And the two leaders are, as we speak, in the middle of a joint press conference. Here's what President Trump - some of what President Trump has had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have just concluded a meeting with President Putin on a wide range of critical issues for both of our countries. We had direct, open, deeply productive dialogue. Went very well.

KING: All right. We're going to try to sort through this from a couple angles now. Here in studio we have Richard Fontaine. He's the president of the Center for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain. He also worked on the National Security Council and at the State Department under President George W. Bush. Good morning, Mr. Fontaine.

RICHARD FONTAINE: Good morning.

KING: And NPR's White House reporter Scott Horsley has been monitoring this summit from Washington. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: All right. Richard, what do you make of what we've been hearing in this press conference?

HORSLEY: Well, so far, the president has spoken about his personal relationship with President Putin - strong emphasis on diplomacy and the ability to solve all the problems, he said, that face both the United States and Russia. So far, there's been very little in the way of specifics. We didn't expect a lot of specifics coming out of this. But certainly, the tone thus far between both President Putin and President Trump is pretty sunny, is not what you would expect after all of the turmoil in U.S.-Russia relations over the past few years.

KING: No. I'm looking at them on the television right now, and everything looks fairly chummy. Richard, you wrote last week that despite Trump's reluctance to criticize Putin in public, U.S. policy toward Russia has actually hardened under his administration. You write, there have been sanctions. There have been diplomatic expulsions. There have been military responses to Russia's actions in Syria and Ukraine. Do you see a difference here between President Trump's personal objectives and the broader diplomatic objectives of the United States for this summit?

FONTAINE: There's a big difference. And this is the fundamental contradiction in the Trump administration's approach to Russia today. You have President Trump on Twitter, in public and now today in Helsinki speaking about all the possibilities that could attend a better U.S.-Russia relationship, largely blaming the past deterioration in ties on entities other than Russia, blaming the United States and so forth. And at the same time, you have a policy that - it gets harder and more and firmer with respect to Russia on a weekly or at least monthly basis. And so you have the president sort of pointing his rhetoric in one direction and the administration pointing us policy in another.

KING: Making things a little confusing. Scott Horsley, there's been a lot of pressure on President Trump to address election interference in the 2016 campaign. Here's what the president has had to say this morning about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: During today's meeting, I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. Spent a great deal of time talking about it. And President Putin may very well want to address it - and very strongly because he feels very strongly about it.

KING: He feels very strongly about it. Scott, do you think anything we've heard so far is going to satisfy lawmakers and other critics who say Trump has not been firm enough with Putin on this?

HORSLEY: Well, Putin's response to the allegations of Russian interference in the election is, I didn't do it. I mean, he has denied it in the past. He denied it again today. The president said they spent a long time talking about it. But he still basically seems to accept Vladimir Putin's claim at face value that Russia played no role. And that's despite what we saw just last Friday, when the grand jury handed up the indictments against a dozen Russian military agents and spelled out in great detail exactly what interference they did carry out.

KING: Is this likely to frustrate lawmakers in Washington that we just can't get anywhere with it?

HORSLEY: I think they're probably hardened to what the president's stance on this has been. I mean, we've been at this for over a year and a half now. And the president's position hasn't really changed. I'm sure there's frustration, but I also think they're going to be where they were.

KING: OK. Fair enough.

HORSLEY: What struck me about this - the bit of the news conference that we've seen so far - is how Trump did very much what he did at the NATO news conference, which is he sort of invented a problem. He said U.S.-Russia relations are at an all-time low. But that changed four hours ago when I sat down with Vladimir Putin. I define the problem, and then I solve the problem. And it's very much like what he did at NATO, where he hyped the problem of inadequate defense spending by the NATO allies and then said, but now I saw that. I came here. And I talked to - I jawboned everyone. They've all agreed to contribute. And he's basically treating Russia and the United States NATO allies as on a par, as just other, indistinct countries that we can be - to play off against.

KING: Which is a very unusual move by a U.S. president. These two men were also supposed to discuss nuclear weapons at this meeting. I want to play tape of President Putin. He's speaking in translation here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) As major nuclear powers, we bear special responsibility for maintaining international security. I deemed it vital, and we mentioned this during the negotiations. It's crucial that we fine-tune the delicate and strategic stability and global security and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

KING: Richard Fontaine, what were you hearing there?

FONTAINE: Well, the Russians certainly have been open to talks about strategic stability and nuclear weapons. And they're trying to strengthen their hand going into those. The new START agreement will expire here in three years. There have been violations among Russia, and Russia accuses the United States of violations - the intermediate nuclear forces agreement. Russia would like to avoid a very costly arms race with the United States, which it probably couldn't afford. And so there's good reasons to have those kind of talks. It's how you have those kind of talks and what the objectives are that's really key.

KING: In the last minute we have left, let me ask each of you the same question. Is this summit going to be viewed as a success and by whom? Richard, let me start with you.

FONTAINE: I think the president's already declared it a success. And so for the president and for those who believe that we need some sort of breakthrough with Russia, then maybe they will see it as success. I think it won't be seen as success by most observers who look at the Russian annexation of Crimea, its support for Assad in Syria, its continued meddling and the U.S. democracy and so forth and see probably no stop to those activities.

KING: Scott Horsley. Success?

HORSLEY: The president will declare it a success. But it is a stark contrast - the conciliatory tone he's taking towards Russia and the tone he took towards America's closest allies last week.

KING: Scott Horsley is NPR's White House correspondent. And Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security. Thank you both so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

FONTAINE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.