The Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy

July 21, 2018

The Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy

by Susan Glasser

Days after Helsinki, the Russians claim big “agreements” were reached, and Washington is silent.Photograph by Win McNamee / Getty


In the days since the Monday meeting in Helsinki, there’s been an understandable frenzy over President Trump’s post-summit press conference, given that he sided with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, over his own intelligence agencies on the subject of Russia’s 2016 election interference, ranted about his Electoral College victory, blamed the United States for bad relations with Russia, and called the special prosecutor investigating his alleged collusion a “disgrace to our country” as a smirking Putin looked on. But the real scandal of Helsinki may be only just emerging.

On Thursday, Putin gave a public address to Russian diplomats in which he claimed that specific “useful agreements” were reached with Trump in their one-on-one meeting at the summit, a private meeting that Trump himself insisted on. Putin’s announcement came a day after his Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said that Trump had made “important verbal agreements” with Putin on arms control and other matters. The Russians, Antonov said, were ready to get moving on implementing them. The White House, meanwhile, has said nothing about what the two men may have agreed to in private, although Trump tweeted Thursday morning that he and Putin had discussed everything from nuclear proliferation to Syria, Ukraine, and trade, and that he looked forward to a second meeting with the Russian President soon, to follow up. On Thursday afternoon, the White House confirmed that Trump plans to invite Putin to Washington in the fall for another summit.

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

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America’s Embarrassment–State Department is kept out of the loop of  Trump-Putin private discussions in Helsinki

Unlike Putin, Trump did not brief his own diplomats on the Helsinki meeting. The American Secretary of State, national-security adviser, and Ambassador to Moscow, who attended the lunch after Trump and Putin’s private session, have been publicly silent on the substance of the meetings, leaving it to the Russians, for now, to make claims about what was actually said and done behind closed doors between the two Presidents. Even as Putin was publicly talking of “agreements” in Moscow on Thursday, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave a radio interview to the conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. The bulk of their conversation concerned a meeting that Pompeo is hosting next week to promote “religious freedom” internationally.

The Secretary of State was neither asked about nor chose to elaborate on what happened in Helsinki, and the only question about Russia concerned whether Pompeo had been alerted, before the Helsinki summit, to the Justice Department indictments of a dozen Russian military-intelligence officers in connection with the 2016 Russian hacking on Trump’s behalf. “I can’t talk about that, Hugh,” Pompeo said.

The information provided to America’s top diplomats, those whose job it is to deal with Russia, was just as sparse and potentially incomplete. The Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Russia, Wess Mitchell, on Tuesday briefed the State Department group that has been pulled together to discuss Russia policy before and after the summit. There was no mention of any agreements. “There is no word on agreements,” a senior U.S. official told me. “There is no information on the U.S. side about any agreements.” So was Putin lying? Was Trump? Was it possible there was a misunderstanding, and that Trump thinks he made no commitments and Putin thinks he did? “It is terribly disturbing,” the senior official said. “The point is that we don’t know.”

A U.S. Ambassador in Europe, who has extensive experience dealing with Russia, told me that he and other State Department officials who would need to know have received no post-summit briefings, or even talking points about what happened, both of which would be standard practice after such an important encounter. “Nothing,” he told me. “We are completely in the dark. Completely.”

At the same time, the fragmentary evidence that has emerged, from the Russian comments and Trump’s various interviews, suggests there is reason for serious concern. In an interview on Fox, Trump questioned America’s commitment to the NATO alliance’s Article 5 mutual-defense provision, disparaging the new NATO member Montenegro as an “aggressive” little country that just might provoke us into “World War Three.” The criticism seemed to parrot Putin’s thinking on NATO and Montenegro—where Russia mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt last year in an effort to block the country’s NATO accession. The exchange left observers justifiably wondering if this was part of the agenda in the private Trump-Putin talks.

Trump has also, in his tweets and other interviews, alluded to substantive discussions with Putin on issues such as Syria, where Trump is already on record as saying he wants to withdraw U.S. troops. If Trump, in fact, struck a secret deal with Putin in Helsinki to pull back U.S. troops from Syria, or otherwise limit the American presence, that would prove deeply controversial among many in his own party.

While Trump’s comments gave cause for concern, another public uproar emerged over Trump’s suggestion that he was taking seriously Putin’s demand to interrogate the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and a number of congressional staffers. McFaul and the staffers were involved in imposing sanctions on corrupt Russian officials after successful lobbying by the U.S.-born businessman Bill Browder, who has emerged as one of Putin’s chief international foes. Was the handing over of a former American Ambassador to Moscow and congressional staffers to Russian officials also discussed—or even agreed to by Trump—in the private session? The White House said it was “considering” Putin’s proposal, while the State Department called demands on McFaul and others “absurd” and a non-starter. Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the White House said Trump “disagrees” with the proposal, which, it nonetheless insisted, had been made by Putin “in sincerity.”

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The bewildered White House  Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has a tough job defending her POTUS

I spoke with McFaul a few minutes after the White House statement from the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was released. “This is hardly a defense of us,” McFaul told me, pointing out that neither he nor the other ten current and former U.S. government officials apparently sought by Putin had anything to do with Browder, and yet were somehow accused of being implicated in a spurious Russian criminal case against the businessman. “The disturbing thing is, this is just one part of the private conversation we know about, and think about how cockamamie it was,” McFaul added. “So that’s the one thing we know about the private talks, and it has this incredibly bad consequence for the American interest. So why wouldn’t we assume the rest of the conversation was like that as well?”


We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy. This week’s extraordinary confusion over even the basic details of the Helsinki summit shows that all too clearly. We may not yet know what exactly Trump agreed to with Putin, or even if they agreed to anything at all; perhaps, it will turn out, Putin and his advisers have sprung another clever disinformation trap on Trump, misleading the world about their private meeting because a novice American President gave them an opening to do so. But, even if we don’t know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here’s what we already do know as a result of the summit: America’s government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated; and its ability to lead an alliance in Europe whose main mission in recent years has been to counter and contain renewed Russian aggression has been seriously called into question.

On Thursday, not long after Putin’s remarks, I spoke with a former senior National Security Council official who has remained in close contact with Trump’s Russia advisers. The official described a bleak scene: the utter lack of process; the failure of the U.S. government to clarify what was even discussed, never mind agreed to, at the meeting; the deep concerns of NATO allies who had spent the previous week believing they had secured Trump’s commitment to their shared agenda of pushing back against Russian aggression. It all seemed almost incomprehensible to anyone with the vaguest sense of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy for generations. “This is no way to run a superpower,” he told me. It’s hard to imagine anyone, Republican or Democrat, who could seriously disagree.


  • Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.

5 thoughts on “The Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy

  1. Trump is not going to be able to keep his pillow talk with Putin private. As president, nothing that Trump does is going to stay secret forever. The battle in Congress to get testimony or the notes of the translator from Trump’s private meeting with Putin is going on fervently.

    There are real concerns that Donald Trump may have disclosed national security secrets, may have put at risk intelligence officials in our government and may have made a side deal with Vladimir Putin that even his own intelligence heads do not know about. Trump has a proven track record of giving away classified information and trying to cut private side deals. Just a year ago, Trump had foreign minister Lavrov and ambassador Kislyak from Russia in the Oval Office, and he kicked out US Press and only allowed Russian media in while he divulged national security secrets.

    Democrats are fighting to get the notes of the translator. I believe Special Counsel Robert Mueller may already have the notes in his position or already spoken to the translator.

    In the meantime, the chances of Donald Trump being charged with crimes have increased exponentially. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made a criminal case against Donald Trump much more likely. Cuomo’s office issued a statement saying: “At Governor Cuomo’s direction, the state stands ready to provide the New York Attorney General with the appropriate criminal referral on this matter if and when she asks for it.”

    The background is that New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump, three of his children and the Trump Foundation in June. That lawsuit states that the Trumps illegally used the nonprofit foundation as a personal “checkbook” for their own benefit. The suit says that foundation funds were used in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The lawsuit also claims that Trump “used the foundation’s name and funds it raised from the public to pay off his legal debts, promote Trump-branded hotels and other businesses and to purchase personal items.” Underwood had requested that a state judge dissolve the Trump Foundation and ban Donald Trump and his three children – Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka – from holding any significant leadership roles in any New York nonprofit organization or charity.

    In order to move from the civil lawsuit to a criminal case, the Attorney General must receive a criminal referral. Given the facts of the case, it is reasonable to think that Underwood would be open to requesting such a criminal referral.

    The New York Department of Taxation and Finance has opened the tax law investigation based on information Underwood had obtained in the process of filing her civil lawsuit last month.The tax investigation will uncover more information than the civil suit, including possibly the president’s tax returns. If the Department of Taxation turns up criminal activity they will refer it to the state attorney general’s office for possible prosecution.

    If that happens then Underwood will have to ask Governor Cuomo for a referral to file state criminal charges against Trump and his three children. And if that happens, the floodgates might open, leading to even more crimes being uncovered.

    And, if the State of New York convicts Donald, Don Jr, Eric or Ivanka of a crime, they cannot be pardoned by the president, who can only pardon for federal crimes. Most of the Trump family’s alleged financial crimes took place in the State of New York.

  2. Translator’s note? Trump can perfectly understand Putin in a one-to-one conversation…the learned and erudite commenter is either suffering from cognitive dissonance or Trump derangement syndrome. But it is fun watching wise diplomats twisting themselves into knots at everything Trump. Indoctrinination by the swamp reaches into every nook and cranny of the world and completely blind themselves from alternate possibility current raging amongst those with eyes to see, ears to hear. Aren’t you an alumni of a prestigious university in washington? Hmmm…curious indeed, or are they cookie cutter university?

  3. “in Helsinki … an understandable frenzy over President Trump’s post-summit press conference, given that he sided with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, over his own intelligence agencies on the subject of Russia’s 2016 election interference”

    Perhaps “his own intelligence agencies” aren’t always dependable? After all, after JFK was conned into okaying the Bay of Pigs disaster, he was so infuriated that he threatened to break the CIA into thousands of pieces.

    And sometimes, efficiency may not be what an administration wanted: Bush Jr, eager to invade Iraq, actually required the “intelligence agencies” to find out facts that fit with his invasion plans. Hence we’d the pathetic spectacle of Colin Powell demonstrating his “proofs” of Saddam Hussein’s chemical/biological weapons lab at the United Nations. And, related to that “war,” honest intelligence might even endanger the officer on the job: the person who denied that Saddam Hussein had the “yellow cake” was revealed to the world by the government he served, thus putting him in danger of being killed by the nation’s enemies.

    Come to think about it, Bush’s lies, which were supported by the mainstream papers who’re now outraged by Trump, resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, not to mention the millions of Iraqi deaths and wounded and the entire destruction of that Middle Eastern country’s administrative and socio-political infrastructure. No talk about Dubya’s impeachment at all.

    Today we’ve article after article lamenting on the harm Trump is doing to the United States. Nothing on the crimes of the plutocratic administrations that, after Reagan – and with the mass media – turned what was, not too long ago, truly the greatest country in the world into becoming the greatest debtor, with an average life expectancy not too different from that of tiny, impoverished Cuba.

  4. If you follow the style it does not look too good. But if you follow the substance US foreign policy is more of the same. It is a matter of time before the State Department takes over from the Intelligent Agencies.

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