White House, Red Menace? Trump inviting Putin to D.C. is 'naive at best.' His timing is probably worse

In a proposition certain to raise the darkest of suspicions, Donald Trump last month invited the Russian leader to the White House during a phone call that experts say risks opening diplomatic doors to the Kremlin at precisely the wrong time.

How inviting Putin to the White House has 'undercut' a global bid to isolate Russia

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk at the APEC summit in Vietnam in November 2017. Trump invited Putin to the White House in a March phone call, amid a crackdown from 25 nations to punish Russia over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)

In a proposition certain to raise the darkest of suspicions, Donald Trump last month invited the Russian leader to the White House during a phone call that experts say risks opening diplomatic doors to the Kremlin at exactly the wrong time.

Former diplomats and Russian scholars warn that the U.S. president's chat with Vladimir Putin — and specifically Trump's floating of a possible White House visit for Putin — weakens the global diplomatic squeeze against the Kremlin just when it should be applying pressure. The move, they say, could invite more Russian mischief.

Trump last month congratulated Putin on winning what was widely presumed to be a fraud-tainted election, despite reports his staff told him not to fete the Russian leader. Trump told reporters that, during their call, he suggested the two leaders should meet "in the not-too-distant future."

Only on Monday was it confirmed that Trump offered for Putin to meet him at the executive mansion in Washington. That invite has bewildered former White House officials and Russian experts, given recent U.S.-led efforts to punish Russia over the attempted murders of a Russian spy and his daughter in England, the sovereign territory of a valued American ally.

"People are asking a perfectly reasonable question: What the hell is going on?" said Daniel Fried, a former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

"It's puzzling and distressing. These are odd messages that are weakening Western solidarity."

Trump speaks during a tour as he reviews border wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13. There are at least six examples of people involved in the Trump campaign who sought dirt on Hillary Clinton that was gathered by Russian intelligence, or who had other ties to Russians. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

More than two dozen countries, including Canada, expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats last month as part of a multilateral campaign. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers, an action intended to send a strong synchronized message of isolation against Russia. That message is now being undermined by the Trump administration's hot-then-cold responses, Fried said.

A possible Trump-Putin summit date has not been set. Agence France-Presse reported that although Trump "floated the idea of a White House summit," there was "no planning" yet underway.

Whether or not the meeting happens at the White House, or whether it materializes at all, is immaterial to critics. They say the mere confirmation from the White House that Trump entertained the idea already sends the wrong message.

"An invitation to Putin does not convey strength; it conveys accommodation," Fried said.

The Treasury Department also recently hit Russia with sweeping sanctions over meddling in U.S. elections. To follow the punishments with an invitation to the White House could be seen as conferring legitimacy to Putin, who might be emboldened to further test the resolve of the U.S. and its allies.

When it comes to U.S.-Russia relations, however, Trump's residency in the White House doesn't mean he speaks for it.

"That's one of the oddities of this administration," Fried said. "You have a president, and you have an administration, and they aren't the same thing."

Asked by reporters on March 15 whether the Trump administration views Putin as a friend or foe, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was circumspect.

It's a green light…to continue their aggressive attacks on the U.S. and our allies.- Brett Bruen, former U.S. State Department official

"Russia's going to have to make that determination," she said.

Yet the White House's National Security Strategy, signed by Trump, presents Russia as an adversarial threat challenging American influence and "attempting to erode American security and prosperity."

Trump has argued there's value in dialogue with other nations to which the U.S. doesn't see eye-to-eye. But what administration officials may view as extending an olive branch, the Kremlin may see as an exploitable opportunity, said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who led a task force countering Russian propaganda during the Obama administration.

"To hope and act as though Putin wanted a relationship that was normal and productive is naive at best. Based on my experiences against Putin's asymmetric tactics, the only thing he responds to is an assertive use of force," he said.

"Not necessarily the application of that force, but the demonstration of its existence and our willingness to deploy it."

Putin speaks to supporters during a rally near the Kremlin in Moscow, March 18. Putin won an overwhelming majority in Russia's presidential election, widely presumed to be fixed. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

If the co-operative isolation was meant to put Russia in something of a diplomatic bind, Trump's White House invitation — and the high honour it represents — suggests "a get-out-of-jail-free card," Bruen said.

"It's a green light … to continue their aggressive attacks on the U.S. and our allies."

Bruen believes the Kremlin will see this as buttressing their arguments that they are not, in fact, isolated. But backing down from the pressure could cast a chilling effect over the international community. Bruen said allies might be less inclined to go along with further punitive measures, at a cost of their own relations with Russia, "if they know that every turn, Trump is going to take his foot off the accelerator."

In this file photo taken on Friday, July 7, 2017, Trump meets with Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Putin last visited the White House in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The idea of Trump meeting Putin amid the current crackdown would ordinarily be controversial enough, without the addition of a White House setting, noted Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard.

"The other thing that makes people nervous is because Trump can be unpredictable about what he says," Vacroux said. 

"Trump has come around" in some ways, Vacroux said, noting that he eventually conceded Russia was to blame for U.S. election meddling.

"But it didn't seem to dampen his admiration for strongmen."

She said the U.S. expulsions of 60 Russians was mostly meant to deal a symbolic short-term blow to the regime. With the exception of the permanent closure of consulates, new diplomats — or spies, as the case may be — will usually arrive to replace those who were ejected.

"If you imagine 100 people from European capitals being ejected, you lose a lot of contacts, relationships, and the time to build them back up is a setback and a loss of investment," Vacroux said. "You restaff, and the game goes on."

Putin wouldn't be the first leader to visit the White House. He last visited in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev were also White House guests. 


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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