A meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit went about as you’d expect.
President Donald Trump joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about meddling in the US elections.
After the two leaders met on the sidelines of the G20 summit on Friday, a reporter shouted a question at Trump about whether he’d warned Putin not to interfere in US democracy.
The US president replied, “Yes, of course I will.” He then turned to Putin, with a slight smirk, and told him: “Don’t meddle in the election, President.” He then pointed toward the Russian delegation and repeated, “Don’t meddle in the election.”
Putin chuckled, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump’s, uh, knack for comedy aside, critics and even supporters of Trump have urged him to be more aggressive with Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election — and to make it unequivocal that such efforts won’t be tolerated in 2020.
Trump did tell the Russian president not to meddle, this time. But it wasn’t quite the robust defense of American democracy that many would have hoped from a US leader.
But Russian interference is a personal sore spot for Trump, who sees it as invalidating and delegitimizing his 2016 victory. The US president resisted rebuking Putin during their summit in Helsinki last July, going so far as to favor the Russian leader’s explanation over the findings of the US intelligence community, which said unequivocally that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 presidential election to sow chaos and promote Trump.
And although special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found no criminal conspiracy between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, Mueller’s final report detailed numerous Russian attempts to cause discord online and operations by Russian military intelligence to hack Democrats.
So while it sure is fun to banter about legitimate national security threats, Trump’s inability to say or do the bare minimum to publicly condemn Russia is still both very weird and very troublesome.
It’s also an ongoing threat. US intelligence officials have warned that the Russians will be back in 2020, and it’s likely other adversaries — such as China and Iran — will join them. And while the administration has taken steps to counter Russia and is shoring up US defenses, Trump’s treatment of the subject is signaling something quite the opposite.
Trump’s election comment was not smart. Another about journalists was even more alarming.
Trump said he and Putin discussed ”trade, and including some disarmament and some — a little protectionism, perhaps, in a very positive way.” He called the meeting “great.”
And in addition to his comedic riff about election meddling, Trump joked with Putin about the threat of “fake news.”
Bloomberg News reported that Trump commiserated with Putin about journalists, telling him: “Get rid of them.”
“Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”
Putin laughed and replied that, yes, Russia does actually have that problem. (Here’s the full clip.)
This is truly a stunning comment. Journalists have been killed in Russia during Putin’s tenure and critics of his regime have died in strange circumstances. Earlier this month, Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golonuv was detained under what critics say were trumped-up drug charges; he was eventually freed under public pressure.
The idea that a US president is shooting the breeze with a dictator over cracking down on reporters is kind of old news at this point, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s one of the easiest things to do as president: speak out in defense of liberal values, freedom of speech, human rights.
It’s also not a particularly good look for Trump to joke about getting “rid” of journalists on the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland.
Trump’s abrogation of this responsibility is striking — and dangerous, as it gives leaders like Putin and others the sense they can crack down on freedom of the press and dissent with impunity.
It also undermines US foreign policy; it’s a lot harder to rally allies to support US efforts in Iran and Venezuela when the US is only selectively criticizing certain regimes it happens not to like and letting others get away with murder (literally).
Trump was notably silent on Putin’s remarks to the Financial Times, even as many European leaders and US allies immediately condemned Putin’s comments. In her bilateral meeting with Putin, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told the Russian leader that “the UK would continue to unequivocally defend liberal democracy and protect the human rights and equality of all groups, including LGBT people” and said that the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on UK soil was a “truly despicable act.”
And she was exactly the appropriate level of enthusiastic for her official handshake photo with Putin.