Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s Putin blunder

Donald Trump’s claim that he took a hard line during the first official meeting with Vladimir Putin on allegations that Russia meddled in the recent US elections collapsed quickly, reports Khaled Dawoud


Trump’s Putin blunder
Trump’s Putin blunder

Hours after US President Donald Trump held his first formal meeting Friday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, on the fringes of the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany, senior administration officials were exchanging congratulations. They described the meeting as “successful”, noting that it produced positive results on the war in Syria and the heated charges that Moscow interfered in the 2016 US elections that led to the defeat of Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the only senior US official who attended the Trump-Putin summit, told reporters that Trump had “positive chemistry” with Putin during the meeting, which lasted some two hours and 15 minutes. It was originally scheduled to last 30 minutes only.

Tillerson said Trump opened their discussion by pressing Putin about “the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election” and had a robust exchange, Tillerson said.

The Russian president has denied any meddling in the US democratic process last year and Moscow has asked for proof that it took place. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Trump accepted Putin’s assertions that the allegations, backed by US intelligence agencies, were false.

Tillerson said they both sought to move on. “The presidents rightly focused on how do we move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point,” Tillerson said.

The two leaders also spent a lot of time discussing Syria, and announced an agreement between the United States, Russia and Jordan on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria.

“President Putin and I have been discussing various things, and I think it’s going very well,” Trump told reporters, sitting alongside the Russian leader.

“We’ve had some very, very good talks... We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned. And it’s an honour to be with you.”

Putin, through a translator, said: “We spoke over the phone with you several times,” adding: “A phone conversation is never enough.”

“I am delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr President,” he said, noting that he hoped the meeting would yield results.

However, that jubilation was short lived. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, agreed to meet with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the 2016 election campaign after being promised damaging information about Clinton.

Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also attended the meeting at Trump Tower on 9 June 2016, two weeks after Trump won the Republican nomination, the Times reported.

In a statement quoted by the Times, Donald Trump Jr acknowledged meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. “After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms Clinton,” the statement said.

“Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

Trump Jr said Veselnitskaya then turned the conversation to the adoption of Russian children and a US law blacklisting Russians linked to alleged human rights abuses.

President Trump was “not aware of and did not attend” the meeting, Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said in an emailed statement.

Trump Jr said he was asked to attend the meeting “with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign” at the request of an acquaintance he knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.

“I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance,” he said.

The New York Times report said Trump Jr was promised damaging information about Clinton before agreeing to meet with the lawyer. It cited three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.

A federal special counsel and several congressional committees are investigating possible contacts between the campaign and Russian representatives as part of a larger probe into allegations that Moscow meddled in the election.

Trump also quickly backtracked on his push for a cyber security unit with Russia, tweeting that he did not think it could happen, hours after his proposal was harshly criticised by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted.

Trump said on Twitter early Sunday that he and Putin discussed Friday, forming “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to address issues like the risk of cyber meddling in elections.

The idea appeared to be a political non-starter. It was immediately scorned by several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who questioned why the United States would work with Russia after Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US election.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told NBC’s “Meet the Press” programme.

Ash Carter, who was US defense secretary until the end of former Democratic president Barack Obama’s administration in January, told CNN flatly: “This is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

Trump’s advisers, including Secretary of State Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, had recently sought to explain Trump’s cyber push.

Mnuchin said on Saturday that Trump and Putin had agreed to create “a cyber unit to make sure that there was absolutely no interference whatsoever, that they would work on cyber security together”.

But Trump returned to Twitter Sunday to play down the idea, which arose in his talks with Putin.

“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t,” Trump said on Twitter

He then noted that an agreement with Russia for a ceasefire in Syria “can & did” happen.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona acknowledged Trump’s desire to move forward with Russia, but added: “There has to be a price to pay.”

“There has been no penalty,” McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” programme, according to a CBS transcript. “Vladimir Putin... got away with literally trying to change the outcome... of our election.”

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s State of the Union programme that Russia could not be a credible partner in a cyber security unit.

“If that’s our best election defence, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Schiff added.

Trump said he “strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it.”

He added: “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” The ceasefire was holding hours after it took effect Sunday, a monitor and two rebel officials said.

Any joint US-Russia cyber initiative would have been a different matter. Depending how much it veered into military or espionage operations, it could have faced major legal hurdles.

Language in the 2017 National Defense Authorisation Act prohibits the Pentagon, which includes the National Security Agency and the US military’s Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia.

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, also noted restrictions on sharing information with Russia that would clearly prohibit offering Moscow a sense of US cyber capabilities. Russia would be similarly adverse to revealing its capabilities to the United States, he noted. “It just will not happen,” McFaul told Reuters.

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