Trump-Putin summit: US president reverses remark on Russia meddling

Trump sheds light on his crucial error at Putin summit

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Media captionTrump sheds light on his crucial error at Putin summit

US President Donald Trump has said he accepts US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election – despite declining to do so just a day ago.

He said he had misspoken on Monday and had meant to say he saw no reason why it was not Russia that meddled.

The original comments, after he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, drew a barrage of criticism.

Even some of Mr Trump’s allies had urged him to clarify his stance.

In his latest remarks, he added he had “full faith and support” in US intelligence agencies.

What he said then…

The controversy centres on a response he gave to a question at a news conference on Monday following the summit with Mr Putin.

This is an extract from the transcript posted by the White House.

REPORTER: President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is, who do you believe?

TRUMP: My people came to me… they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.

…. what he says now

Mr Trump said he had reviewed the transcript and realised he needed to clarify.

“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,” he said.

“The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t’ or ‘why it wouldn’t be Russia’. Sort of a double negative.”

The US president added: “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Media captionThe ways Trump and Putin see eye to eye

Mr Trump said that the interference had had no impact on the election, in which he defeated Hillary Clinton.

However, he did not respond when reporters asked him if he would condemn Mr Putin.

Why the outrage?

Republicans and Democrats alike were dumbfounded that Mr Trump sided with Russia over his own intelligence officials after Monday’s summit.

The US and Russia have been long-term adversaries, and remain far apart on major issues. Some lawmakers were also upset that he refused to offer specific criticisms of Russia and Mr Putin, instead saying both countries were responsible for poor relations.

Even one of his most loyal Republican supporters, Newt Gingrich, said the comments were the “most serious mistake of his presidency”.

After the reversal, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accused the US president of cowardice.

The damage has been done

By the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher in Washington

Does Donald Trump believe in ominous metaphors? As he affirmed his support for US intelligence agencies, the lights went to black in the White House conference room.

Once order was restored, he said he had been in the dark why a storm has swirled around his presidency in the day since his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. It was, he says, because he misspoke.

That is going to be hard for many of the president’s critics to swallow, however. Even if he did mean to say, “I don’t see a reason why it wouldn’t be Russia”, it is a pretty weak way to confront the head of a nation accused of targeting the heart of American democracy.

What’s more, the context of the president’s comments make a simple slip of the tongue seem less likely.

At the very least, the president gave his supporters some material to rally around.

The damage, however, has been done. Mr Trump can give as many White House statements as he likes, but on the biggest stage – standing beside the Russian president – he fumbled. All the explanations can’t change that.

US General Ben Hodges: ‘Russia only respects strength’

In the space of a week, the US president has attacked NATO and cozied up to Vladimir Putin. Retired US Army General Ben Hodges told DW that Trump alienating US allies “worries every military professional” he knows.

Polen Warschau Militärparade US General Ben Hodges (picture-alliance/(AP Photo/A. Keplicz)

After military experience in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Frederick “Ben” Hodges served his last military assignment as commander of the United States Army in Europe, before his retirement in December 2017. Now living in Frankfurt, Germany, he is Pershing Chair of Strategic Studies at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

DW: What did you make of President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his US counterpart Donald Trump in Helsinki? Do you share what seems to be the common view: That it was a diplomatic disaster that undermines multilateral alliances like NATO?

Hodges: I’m reluctant to say anything is a disaster so immediately after it happened. It’s just going to take a little bit of time for things to filter out. Certainly all the reports I’ve seen would indicate that nobody was happy with it except the Russians. I think, on the plus side, at least there have been no announcements of something like: You can do what you want with Ukraine or Georgia. There’s no indication that this was like in the 18th century, when great powers traded away space to each other. I think there’s a little bit of a sigh of relief that way.

I think it’s going to be a huge problem for Trump in the US, because so many Republicans have also come out with very strong criticism, that he didn’t put a stake in the heart of this whole business about Russian meddling in the US election. He wouldn’t condemn it, he didn’t hold Putin accountable, I mean, it’s inexplicable.

Watch video01:32

Donald Trump draws fierce criticism after Putin summit

DW: Trump began his European trip by criticizing NATO allies and ended it by failing to criticize Putin. What should we read into that?

First and foremost, our great alliance NATO — it’s not perfect, lots of work that always needs doing — but it’s still the most successful alliance in the history of the world. The alliance has made it through tough times before, but it was always because the nations shared common interests and values, and there was never a question that the US would always provide leadership. For the first time in my life, the American president put that in question, which really concerns me. What is new is that the president is so openly disrespectful and dismissive of our most important allies — that worries every military professional I know.

Helsinki Trump Putin (picture alliance/dpa)Many people interpreted the Helsinki meeting as a disaster for Trump

Read more: Trump ignites firestorm with attacks on Germany

Secondly, I don’t think the president appreciates alliances and international organizations. I think that’s unfortunate, because for the US, the alliance is an essential part of our overall national security strategy. The 30,000 troops that are in Germany are not there to defend Germany, that’s part of our overall contribution to collective security. And frankly Germany is the essential ally for the US, because of the access it gives us to do so much. It’s our forward presence, if you will, our intelligence cooperation. I’ve always believed that Germany is the ally the US should be working hardest to have that relationship with. The fact that the president singled out the chancellor: I think that was a terrible mistake.

Read moreOpinion: Trump-Putin summit was a troubling media circus

DW: But many analysts and conservative German politicians shared Trump’s criticism that Germany should be spending more on defense.

Yes, having said all that, while most of the nations were beginning to do more in terms of burden-sharing, I think the president drew a lot of attention to it and probably added some momentum to it, which is needed. So I think he should get some credit for that. Honestly, half of America doesn’t understand either why European countries don’t do more. But I didn’t like the way it’s done – I think it’s harmful in the long run.

DW: A lot of the points that Trump made — on NATO spending, and on Nord Stream 2 — are shared by defense analysts. So it just Trump’s style that bothers people?

I don’t want to say it’s just style — that minimizes the damage that Trump does to these relationships. Style is a part of it, but it’s much worse than that, it’s a disregard for our allies and what it means to be an ally. Germany does so much to help the alliance, and to help the United States, which doesn’t fit into this 2 percent (the percentage of GDP that NATO wants its members to spend on defense – DW). I really don’t like that 2 percent as the only measure. I understand why we have it, but I think it’s time for a much more sophisticated approach to burden-sharing, and what it really means. What the alliance needs Germany to do just doesn’t fit neatly under that 2 percent.

Watch video06:15

Trump’s European trip ‘an unblemished win for Putin’

DW: Some people in Germany are a little distrustful of NATO and the Cold War rhetoric of antagonism towards Russia. They aren’t Trump supporters, but they certainly don’t want conflict with Russia either. Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that we make the threat of Russia bigger than it is?

No, absolutely not. For 400 hundred years, Russia has always used every element of its power, whether it’s economic, diplomatic, or military power, to achieve what it wanted. We need to be realistic about it: Russia only respects strength. Russia’s the one that invaded Ukraine, Russia’s the one that invaded Georgia, Russia’s the one that’s threatening Baltic countries, and talks about Romania, Denmark, and Sweden being nuclear targets — this is a real threat.

Now, there’s not a long line of Russian tanks sitting across the border with engines running waiting to launch a ground invasion. I don’t expect that, although they’ve retained that capability in combination with cyber- and misinformation, and the threat of nuclear weapons. Number two: All of us, including the US, disarmed significantly in the last few years because we thought Russia was going to be our partner. The last American tank went home from Germany five years ago. The Bundeswehr almost completely disarmed, and now because of what Russia has done, everybody is hustling to rebuild sufficient capability to deter.

Read moreGerman politicians rally round Merkel after Trump’s NATO tirade

DW: So in that context, how worrying was this summit, and the apparent hold that Putin has over Trump?

Well, the fact that they met is not bad. In fact, the tenser the situation is the more you would want people to meet to make sure there are no misunderstandings. The problem is so many people don’t have confidence in what President Trump is doing or saying. Meeting for the sake of meeting is not helpful if you’re not clear about expectations and if you’re not putting pressure on Russia. Again, the Russians only respect strength, and I think right now the alliance does not look strong, and the president does not look strong.


‘Two boxers starting a match’: Trump and Putin’s gestures dissected by body language expert

Donald Trump appeared uncomfortable but confident before his summit with Vladimir Putin, a body language expert told RT, noting that both leaders looked more relaxed after their meeting – perhaps a sign of the summit’s success.

Speaking with the press before launching into a private meeting that lasted more than two hours, Trump and Putin’s posture and hand gestures provided clues about how the two leaders were feeling about the summit and about each other, according to Howard Feldman, an analyst and body language expert.

Feldman told RT that it was important to note the context of meeting and that both leaders knew that the world would be dissecting their every move.

“Trump is coming from a very, very highly critical domestic America. Hillary Clinton tweeted just before they met, asking which team he’s on – referring to the World Cup. So, he’s very aware that his whole country is looking at him and trying to interpret what is really going on between these two leaders.”

Although Putin may have been a bit more at ease – perhaps due in part to not having to travel as far for the meeting, and the successful completion of the World Cup – both leaders at first looked “very, very uncomfortable,” Feldman said.
“They look like a divorcing couple. They don’t look like people who are happy to be seeing each other.”

He said that unlike Trump’s signature handshake – the US leader is known for his macho hand-throttling – the two leaders engaged in a more reserved greeting.

“What we see about that handshake is that it is a very distant handshake, it’s not one where their whole bodies are involved. So, it’s not a friendly handshake. It’s a very fair handshake. It’s almost like two boxers starting the beginning of a match.”

Pointing to Trump’s “steeple” hand position, Feldman observed that Trump also appeared to be confident – signaling that, despite his anxiousness, the US leader had high hopes for the meeting.

Some of the body language may have been calculated, however, Feldman noted, suggesting that “Trump wanted to show America that he was going in as a difficult, tough negotiator,” and only put down his guard after the meeting. “To me it looked a little bit staged,” he said.

On the topic of Trump’s much-discussed wink, Feldman asserted that there was nothing revealing about it, aside from showing that the US leader may have been trying to lighten the mood.

“What I think is that it was a friendly gesture to himself. I think he was trying to relax a little bit. I don’t think that that wink conveyed any natural warmth, I don’t think it conveyed comradery between the two. If it was any form of communication, which I’m not sure that it was, it might have been ‘alright, we gotta do this, so let’s make the best of it.’ But I don’t think we can read too much into that,” the body language expert told RT. “If anything, my thought is that he was almost comforting himself with that wink. I don’t buy it as being anything friendly.”

After emerging from their meeting, Feldman said that Trump and Putin appeared more comfortable in each other’s presence – possibly an indicator that their talks were productive.

“It might be general protocol but you did get the sense, even from the way they were holding the podiums, that it was a little bit more relaxed,” Feldman said. “When Putin was speaking, you saw Trump leaning a little bit more towards him. There was a natural comfort after the private meeting. Indications are that the meeting went well.”

According to the body language specialist, Trump likely had more difficulty hiding his true emotions, while Putin’s tenure as Russian president has given him lots of experience in “political posturing.”

Feldman said that, while he sensed that “optics were involved” in the way that the two leaders presented themselves, “we can’t really hide our body language all the time, because something is going to give it away.” He predicted that if the two presidents were to meet again, their body language would appear much more relaxed – and Trump would likely even give Putin’s hand a firm squeeze.

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‘Very much counter to the plan’: Trump defies advisers in embrace of Putin


President Trump appears with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
By Ashley ParkerJosh Dawsey and Carol D. LeonnigJuly 16 at 11:01 PMEmail the author
Administration officials had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Monday’s summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladmir Putin would end differently — without a freewheeling 46-minute news conferencein which Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised archrival Russia.

Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Trump’s remarks were “very much counter to the plan,” the person said.

“Everyone around Trump” was urging him to take a firm stance with Putin, according to a second person familiar with the preparations. Before Monday’s meeting, the second person said, advisers covered matters from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its interference in the U.S. elections, but Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.

“I think that the United States has been foolish,” Trump said at one point, referring to tensions with Russia. “I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”

A senior White House official disputed the idea that the president acted unilaterally, and said he had numerous sessions with senior administration officials preparing for the summit in addition to briefing materials.

In the end, Trump’s performance alongside Putin in the Finnish capital seemed like a tour through his most controversial conspiracy theories, tweets and off-the-cuff musings on Russia — except he did it all while abroad, standing just feet from Putin, the leader of one of America’s greatest geopolitical foes.

Watch Donald Trump’s full news conference with Vladimir Putin

Here are the full remarks and responses to questions from President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference on July 16 in Helsinki. (The Washington Post)
The spectacle in Helsinki also underscored Trump’s eagerness to disregard his own advisers, his willingness to flout the conclusions of his own intelligence community — that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections — and his apparent fear that pressing Putin on the subject might cast doubt on his electoral victory.

[Trump hands Putin a diplomatic triumph by casting doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies]

“The president has been more reluctant than most to weigh into the idea that Russia did it and they’re still doing it,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “He felt that would undermine his own election.”

This account of the days leading up to Trump’s Helsinki summit is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen White House officials, advisers and diplomats, most of whom requested anonymity to reveal internal discussions.

Signs that things might not go according to plan were evident during the two days Trump spent holed up at his luxury seaside golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland.

Trump’s warm interactions with Putin

At their summit in Helsinki on July 16, President Trump appeared to wink at Russian President Vladimir Putin at least twice. (Jenny Starrs /The Washington Post)
The president spent much of the weekend “growling,” in the words of one White House official, over the Justice Department’s indictment Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officials for interfering in the 2016 election. He fretted that the timing of the indictments was intended to injure him politically, the official said.

But a senior White House official said Trump had been in favor of announcing the indictments before the trip so he could raise the issue privately with Putin.

Trump also made it clear that he was more excited to sit down with the Russian president than he had been to visit with NATO allies earlier in the week in Brussels.

“He loved the summit with Kim Jong Un,” the White House official said, referring to the North Korean leader with whom Trump met last month in Singapore. “He thinks he can sit down eye to eye with these guys, flatter them and make a deal.”

In advance of the Putin meeting, White House officials repeatedly told European allies “not to worry,” according to diplomats familiar with the discussions. No deals would be made between Putin and Trump, they said, and no secret promises would be offered that could threaten the balance of power on the continent.

They also said the summit would have a declaration text that was short and generic.

[The Take: The moment called for Trump to stand up for America. He chose to bow.]

But the officials could not provide similar assurances about the summit’s live news conference, a setting where the president routinely defies the carefully laid plans of his White House team.

One European official acknowledged the difficulty of relying on the assurances of Trump’s aides, saying, “These people don’t control the reality.”

Putin almost seemed unable to hide his delight as Trump, standing just to his right, excoriated the FBI, Hillary Clinton and Democrats, among others, and said he held “both” Russia and the United States responsible for the declining relations between the two countries.

Trump had grown frustrated that his own government had been so negative about meeting with Putin and wanted a one-on-one meeting so it would not leak, aides said. One senior White House official described Trump’s public remarks as striking a deliberately “contrarian” tone.

Administration officials said Trump’s national security team — including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — has generally urged him to be tough on Putin and to view the Russian leader through a far more negative prism than he does.

[Putin’s view triumphs in Helsinki]

Trump’s remarks in Helsinki were met with widespread condemnation, including from many within his own party.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats put out a statement distancing himself from Trump and his comments. “The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers,” Coats said in the statement. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

As Trump flew back to Washington aboard Air Force One late Monday, he and his team struggled to quell the outcry.

“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” tweeted Newt Gingrich, a steadfast Trump ally and former Republican House speaker, whose wife Trump appointed ambassador to the Vatican. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”

Trump issued a tweet that seemed to backtrack slightly. “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’ ” he wrote. “However, I also recognize that to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear ­powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018.”

And others rushed to Trump’s defense. Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, downplayed the controversy.

“I didn’t think Trump was going to call him a liar to his face after he denied it,” Bennett said. “I don’t think it makes sense to stand six feet from him and call him a liar.”

One of Trump’s most vocal defenders was Vice President Pence, who has cemented his relationship with the president through unflinching loyalty.

In a speech to Commerce Department employees Monday afternoon, Pence offered a rosy review of what he described as Trump’s “historic trip” abroad.

“The truth is, over the last week, the world saw once again that President Donald Trump stands without apology as leader of the free world,” Pence said. “. . . What the world saw, what the American people saw, is that President Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first.”

John Hudson and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
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Ashley ParkerAshley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2017, after 11 years at the New York Times, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns and Congress, among other things. Follow 

Josh DawseyJosh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal. Follow 

Carol LeonnigCarol Leonnig is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2000. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her work on security failures and misconduct inside the Secret Service. Follow 


Trump-Putin Summit Eases Russia’s Isolation While Posing New Risks

Leaders to hold their first extensive meeting with a host of high-stakes topics to discuss, from Syria to Ukraine to U.S. election meddling

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met briefly in Vietnam last year during a regional summit. They will have their first extended one-on-one session on Monday.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met briefly in Vietnam last year during a regional summit. They will have their first extended one-on-one session on Monday. PHOTO: JORGE SILVA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

HELSINKI—President Donald Trump’s summit with President Vladimir Putin  on Monday to discuss international security issues will mark a symbolic end to the American effort to isolate Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The question is: What will the U.S. get in return?

The meeting comes three days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen Russian intelligence officers on charges of hacking into servers of the Democratic Party and a state election board, bringing the issue of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to the fore.

Mr. Trump brushed aside the indictments in a tweet on Saturday, saying “the stories you heard about 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama administration,” which he alleged didn’t act strongly enough against Moscow.

For Mr. Trump, the summit will be his first extensive one-on-one meeting with a leader he described last week as a “competitor” and potential friend. Most North Atlantic Treaty Organization members see Mr. Putin as a determined foe who seeks to undermine the alliance.

Helsinki will provide another opportunity to test Mr. Trump’s highly personal and freewheeling style of diplomacy following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month. But it is rife with potential pitfalls.

“It is clear that the U.S. is now engaging Russia, but what is the quality of that engagement?” said Thomas Graham, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Russia and is now a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. “I think it is going to continue to be a very troubled relationship.”

Any U.S. concession, Mr. Trump’s critics will hasten to say, will come in talks with an adversary who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to help him win the presidential election. The Helsinki agenda also includes an array of vexing issues.

The talks will include Syria, where the White House has signaled it will seek Russia’s help in scaling back Iran’s role, and Ukraine, where efforts to persuade Moscow to reverse its occupation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine have failed.

Arms control is also up for discussion. Mr. Trump said Friday that nuclear weapons are the “biggest problem in the world.” But the Helsinki summit hasn’t been preceded by the months of lower-level negotiating sessions that have preceded major breakthroughs on nuclear issues before.

The two leaders will discuss whether to extend the New START treaty, which expires in 2021, and U.S. allegations that Russia violated the 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, Mr. Trump indicated.

The two side could also revive the “strategic stability” talks that Russia broke off earlier this year. These discussions give each side a chance to ask questions about the other’s nuclear doctrine and military programs with the aim of reducing the risk of miscalculation that could lead to war.

What to Know About the Russia Indictment

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced charges Friday against 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking the 2016 presidential election. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains. Photo: Getty

The policy details, however, will be overshadowed by the meeting itself, which is being held at the Presidential Palace, the same site where former President  George H.W. Bush met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The rendezvous follows Mr. Trump’s summit with Mr. Kim that showcased Mr. Trump’s conviction that he can overcome decades of mistrust by establishing a personal rapport. That encounter has yet to yield the U.S. goal of a denuclearization agreement.

This time, the meeting follows a NATO summit in which Mr. Trump sparred with the U.S.’s closest allies over military spending. At a NATO leaders’ dinner Wednesday evening, allies told Mr. Trump that talks with Mr. Putin could be useful, but urged the president to stress the importance of an international rules-based order, a diplomat said.

For Mr. Putin, the summit itself is an accomplishment. The Russian leader has long sought to be treated as an equal partner and to demonstrate his nation’s importance on the international stage.

“The fact that President Trump is willing to sit down with Putin and is likely to say positive things about him, is a great achievement for Vladimir Putin,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Mr. Obama. “It means that the process of normalization is happening and [Putin] has had to do absolutely nothing to achieve that.”

Russia also has more specific goals. For one, Mr. Putin wants NATO to halt military exercises near its border. Mr. Trump said Thursday that might be open for discussion. Russia also wants the withdrawal of U.S. troops and antimissile defenses from Europe.

Part of Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin will be alone. He has been reluctant to include a note taker because he is wary of leaks, said a foreign official briefed on the plans. The two leaders will then be joined by senior officials on both sides, followed by a press conference. Mr. Putin is scheduled to be interviewed on Monday by Fox News.

Mr. Trump has faced calls from some Democrats to ensure U.S. officials join him for all of his meetings with Mr. Putin and to cancel the summit outright if Russian election meddling isn’t the main order of business.

Mr. Trump said he would raise the subject with Mr. Putin, but suggested he wouldn’t press too hard. “All I can do is say, ’Did you’ and ’Don’t do it again,’” the president said last week. Those comments came after Mr. Trump was briefed on the coming indictments.

Nor are there any signs Moscow will try to make amends: Russia’s Foreign Ministry has already denounced the indictments as a “canard.”

Risks for Mr. Trump also lie in his discussion of regional issues, according to one former Trump adviser, who said the president has an exaggerated view of Russia’s geopolitical influence and might make concessions accordingly.

“He’d like to imagine Russia as more than it is,” the former adviser said.

Syria is one such area. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has signaled that the administration wants Russia’s help in getting Iran’s forces to leave. He said the White House no longer sees the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow, as a priority.

Most experts doubt Russia has the influence to dislodge Iran and the Shiite militias Tehran backs from Syria. Moreover, Moscow has recently carried out airstrikes for the Assad regime’s forces—attacks the U.S. has condemned as a violation of cease-fire arrangements.

“By providing air cover to successful Syrian army offensives that have made significant gains, Russia has increased its leverage for any discussions between the American and Russian presidents,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

Few experts believe Mr. Trump will make diplomatic progress over Ukraine. Russia appears to be playing a waiting game until next year’s presidential election in Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s position has often been erratic.

Mr. McFaul, now a political-science professor at Stanford University, said Mr. Putin wants the U.S. “to agree to disagree on Crimea.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at and Rebecca Ballhaus at



Netanyahu meets Putin in Russia to discuss Syria, Iran, security issues

Netanyahu meets Putin in Russia to discuss Syria, Iran, security issues
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Getty Images)


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday to try to enlist Moscow’s help in getting Iran to remove its forces from Syria — or at least pull back from Israeli lines.

Israel has grown increasingly alarmed about the growing presence of Iranian troops and allied militias in neighboring Syria, where they have provided vital support to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a grinding civil war.

“Iran needs to leave Syria — that is not something new for you,” Netanyahu told Putin as they headed into their meeting.

But while Russia and Iran are close allies in the battle to defend Assad’s government against the rebels trying to unseat him, some regional experts and diplomats question Putin’s ability — or interest — in persuading Tehran to pull out altogether.

Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected such demands.

“No one can force Iran to do anything,” the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, told reporters in comments cited by Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim News Agency in May.

“As long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have a presence [in Syria]. Those who have entered Syria without the consent of the Syrian government should leave.”

Putin is being courted by all sides in the days leading up to his summit with President Trump on Monday in Helsinki, where the issue of Iran’s presence in Syria is expected to be high on the agenda. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, was also in Moscow on Wednesday and is scheduled to meet with the Russian president Thursday.

While Israel has not intervened directly in the fighting in Syria, it has acted against what it calls “game-changing” new threats on its northern border — principally weapons shipments to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which is also aiding Assad.

In April, Israel shot down what it identified as an armed Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace from Syria and bombarded the military base from which it said the drone had been launched. The incident, a major escalation, resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16 that was hit by Syrian antiaircraft missiles.

In another manifestation of the threat Israel sees emanating from its neighbor, a Syrian armed forces drone penetrated more than six miles into Israeli territory Wednesday before it was shot down by a Patriot antimissile battery over the Sea of Galilee, the Israeli military said.

“We will continue to take strong action against any trickle [of fire] and any infiltration into Israel’s airspace or territory,” Netanyahu said in Moscow.

Late Wednesday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that the Israeli air force had fired several missiles at Syrian army positions in the southwestern province of Quneitra.

The Israeli army said it targeted three military posts in Syria “in response to the infiltration” of the Syrian drone. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

On Sunday, Netanyahu told his Cabinet he planned to underscore two basic principles of Israeli policy at his meeting with Putin.

“First, we will not tolerate the establishment of a military presence by Iran and its proxies anywhere in Syria — not close to the border and not far away from it,” he said, according to a statement from his office.

“Second, we will demand that Syria, and the Syrian military, strictly uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement,” a deal that set out a demilitarized zone along their frontier and limited the number of forces each side can deploy within 15 miles of the zone.

It was unclear what Netanyahu had achieved by the end of the meeting, when he and his wife, Sara, headed to a World Cup semifinal as Putin’s guests.

Israeli diplomatic sources cited by journalists who accompanied Netanyahu to Moscow would say only that Russia was working to distance Iran from the area adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian analyst and editor of the quarterly journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that Putin’s primary concern in the discussions is to stabilize Syria and that U.S. agreement was necessary.

“The United States is not the biggest stakeholder, but a big one,” Lukyanov said. “And here, I think Trump’s and Putin’s aims are compatible.”

Some Israeli officials have been floating the idea of a “grand bargain” under which the United States would ease sanctions imposed on Russia after it annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in exchange for Russian assistance addressing U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

“More than one senior Israeli official has suggested to me that the United States should, in effect, ‘trade Ukraine for Syria’: Look the other way at Russia’s takeover of portions of Ukraine as the price for Russia expelling Iran from Syria,” Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote in a column in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Shapiro, now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told The Times he could understand why Russia would welcome such a deal, but he saw no reason why any American official would go for it.

“It would be a major concession to Russia, giving them a free hand in Europe,” he said. “From the U.S. perspective, it’s complete strategic madness. But we can’t deny the possibility that Trump is entertaining this as a real plan.”

Special correspondents Ayres reported from Moscow and Tarnopolosky from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report from Beirut.

5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m.


Trump berates NATO allies and then asks them to double their defense spending goals

Trump says Germany is ‘captive’ to Russia after pipeline deal

President Trump slammed Germany on July 11, over a gas pipeline deal with Russia. He said the country is now “captive to Russia.” 

 President Trump ripped into NATO allies Wednesday, slamming Germany for its dependence on Russian energy and demanding that nations double their military spending commitments.

European diplomats have been worried about continued U.S. support for NATO. But even as Trump hit allies, he also signed on to efforts to strengthen the alliance against the Kremlin and other rivals, as well as a statement that the alliance does not accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

On spending, Trump insisted in a closed-door meeting of NATO leaders that the alliance increase its defense targets to 4 percent of each country’s gross domestic product — more than what the United States channels toward its military. It was not clear whether he was serious about a new standard or whether he was using the number as a negotiating tactic to edge overall spending higher and get European nations to pay more.

The push came hours after Trump bashed Germany for “being captive to Russia” because it imports much of its natural gas from there. That tirade, over breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, was rare in its bitterness.

“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.

Stoltenberg on defense spending: Let’s get to 2 percent

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg answered questions about defense spending July 11, after President Trump urged NATO leaders to increase commitments. 

Despite the contentiousness, Trump agreed to a 23-page declaration that Stoltenberg said would guide a more robust NATO defense for years to come. Other NATO leaders welcomed the decision, even as they said Trump’s divisive approach to his allies weakened the alliance.

Stoltenberg sought to project unity at the conclusion of the first of two days of meetings in Brussels.

“We do have disagreements, but most importantly, we have decisions that are pushing this alliance forward and making us stronger,” Stoltenberg said. “At the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together.”

NATO leaders are still concerned that Trump will make concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet on Monday in Helsinki.

Trump has complained bitterly about Europe’s lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations are taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they are offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.

Only eight of 29 NATO countries are on track to meet pledges of spending 2 percent of their GDPs on defense this year. Washington spent 3.6 percent last year. When he has talked about it in recent days, Trump has rounded up to 4 percent. And after Wednesday’s meeting, he tweeted with a demand for countries to meet the current 2 percent target.

Front row from left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Several NATO experts dismissed the seriousness of the 4 percent proposal.

“No country in the world can meet that,” said Bobo Lo, a Russia scholar who attended the summit. “He’s asking for something outrageous, not in the hope of getting it, but in getting to 2 percent or more.”

An official present when Trump made the demand said that “the room was aghast,” even though Trump was actually more cordial in private than in his public remarks. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private proceedings.

A favorite target of Trump’s ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and has granted permits for a second natural gas pipeline to Russia. Germany and other European NATO partners argue, however, that they have boosted their contributions to the military alliance and plan to kick in more in coming years. Germany’s leadership has said the pipeline is a private business decision, and it has been reluctant to interfere.

The accusation of Russian influence may have been particularly biting for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist-controlled East Germany.

“I myself experienced a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union, and I am very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merkel told reporters as she entered NATO headquarters. “We decide our own policies and make our own decisions.”

Inside the closed-door meeting, she went further in her pushback, according to two officials who were present. In firm, unemotional language, Merkel told the other 28 leaders how Putin once served as a KGB officer and spy in her own country, making clear that she had little tolerance for being told her nation was controlled by the Kremlin.

Trump traveled to Europe saying that next week’s summit with Putin may be the easiest part of his week of diplomacy — an unusual assertion, challenging the notion that NATO should project a strong and united front against a strategic rival.

Trump has preferred to take aim at allies.

Trump: ‘We have a tremendous relationship with Germany’

President Trump beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels on July 11. Earlier in the day, Trump accused Germany of being “captive to Russia.” 

Even Stoltenberg — a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with the president — appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War. Earlier in the exchange, Trump demanded credit from Stoltenberg for forcing an increase of NATO defense budgets.

“We’re supposed to protect Germany, but they’re getting their energy from Russia,” Trump said, as aides on both the U.S. and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats. Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, grimaced. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison looked up at the ceiling. “So explain that,” Trump said. “And it can’t be explained, and you know that.”

Trump’s criticism set off immediate anxiety in Germany. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung headlined its story: “It is not only bad, it is catastrophic.” Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1 broadcaster — a reliable proxy for Kremlin views — blasted the remarks as well.

Germany’s energy relationship with Russia has long frustrated Washingtonand Eastern Europe, who fear that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass the Baltic nations and Poland, could be used to cut them off from crucial energy supplies. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a top executive at the Russian-government-controlled company that runs the pipeline.

Trump has promoted exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe as an alternativeto Russia as a supply source, although U.S. gas is far more expensive because of shipping costs.

Key moments from Stoltenberg’s NATO news conference

Here are key moments from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s remarks to reporters in Brussels on July 11. 

The defense decisions made Wednesday were the result of months of careful negotiation, seemingly separate from Trump’s improvisatory policymaking.

NATO leaders unveiled two new military headquarters: one that would help secure the Atlantic Ocean in times of conflict and the other to speed military movement across Europe. They bolstered NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanded efforts to fight terrorism. And they reconfirmed their tough line on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as their pledge to continue pressing the Kremlin through sanctions and diplomacy to return it to Ukraine. Officials from the NATO countries that border Russia embraced the outcome.

“All the decisions contain everything we were wishing for,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. “It shows that there is a genuine wish to have practical cooperation.”

Trump will have more NATO meetings on Thursday. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, then spend the weekend at one of his private golf clubs in Scotland. Finally, he will head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin.

Josh Dawsey, John Hudson, Philip Rucker and Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.

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