In the run-up to President Trump’s first (yes, first, even though Trump has previously claimed to have met and bonded with Putin in the past) meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the big question was whether Trump would confront Putin over Russia’s interference with our 2016 election.
Based on the report of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it appears that Trump did indeed raise the subject but fell far short of “confronting” Putin with it. The report of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, is even more discouraging.
Tillerson said that Trump opened the meeting by “raising the concerns of the American people” regarding Russian interference with the 2016 election. He said that Trump pressed Putin about Russian involvement, which Putin denied.
According to Lavrov, Trump accepted Putin’s assurance that Russia wasn’t behind the hacking. True or not, Tillerson said nothing suggesting that Trump strongly resisted Putin’s denials.
Tillerson also said that Trump “took note of actions that have been discussed by Congress,” but the two presidents “rightly focused on how to move forward.”
Labelling the issue as “intractable,” Tillerson said that since it’s not clear that we will ever come to “some agreed upon resolution,” it is more important to “find a way to move forward” than it is to “litigate” the past.
How are we going to do that? We’re going to have lower level government bureaucrats from both nations get together to work it out. The representatives of the two nations will attempt to “secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.
Lavrov put it in somewhat more colorful but not substantively different language: the U.S. and Russia will appoint “special envoys” to discuss the “irritants” that have piled up on both sides, mostly under the Obama administration.
So, what are we to make of all this?
Let’s begin by recognizing that “taking note” that others (the “American people” and Congress) in the United States are concerned about the Russian interference is a long way from, “I know you interfered with our election, and there will be consequences, so don’t do it again.”
While Lavrov’s statement that Trump accepted Putin’s denial may be a falsehood or an exaggeration, nothing in Tillerson’s readout is inconsistent with the proposition that Trump expressed personal doubt that Russia was behind the hacking. After all, he has been publicly expressing that doubt for months, even in the face of definitive intelligence to the contrary. There is no reason to believe that he would take a different tack with Putin, and nothing Tillerson said suggests that he did.
If, as seems to be the case, Trump expressed any personal doubt about Russia’s responsibility for the attack on our election, Putin would have every reason to believe that he had gotten away with it.
As to consequences, changing the focus from “litigating” the past to having lower-level representatives try to “secure a commitment” that there will be no future interference is diplo-speak for “don’t worry about it.”
“Let bygones be bygones” might be good advice for squabbling couples, but it hardly seems to be an appropriate response by the most powerful nation in the world to an adversary’s attack on our democracy.
So, while Trump’s supporters will make much of the fact that he “raised the issue,” and spin it as an act of strength and courage, it wasn’t.
Given the substance of the conversation, as reported by both Tillerson and Lavrov, the US would have been in a better, stronger position if Trump had said nothing at all.
Now, a Russian attack has been downgraded to an “irritant” to be included in a basket of mutual grievances to be discussed by unknown people at some unknown date.
And “there will be consequences” has been down-graded to “please don’t do it again.”
Putin must be laughing up his sleeve.
Yes, it was that easy.
Please follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip Rotner is a writer, attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.