When it emerged that Donald Trump had had a second, unscheduled and unsupervised chat with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, the media’s already-overstressed conspirometer dialed up to 11. But what if the real story now is less one of collusion with the Russians as collision with everyone else?
In his formal meeting with Putin, Trump was accompanied only by an interpreter and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—not National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, or experienced NSC Putin-watcher Fiona Hill. For the unscripted “pull-aside” at a later dinner, he spent the best part of an hour with his Russian counterpart without even his own interpreter, only a Russian one. (Generally both sides have interpreters just to make certain meanings aren’t lost or muddled, and also as an additional source of record.)
By now, one might assume that Trump actively courts controversy over his relationship with Russia. As more and more behind-the-scenes meetings before the elections of last November come to light, he hardly seems cautious or chastened. True, he’s toughened his rhetoric on Russia slightly, but still seems locked into a spiraling orbit around Putin.
Trump is not above trolling his critics, of course. But a 3 a.m. tweet is more his style than a sustained love-fest with the president of a country that has meddled in U.S. elections and power plants, supplied the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with tanks and missiles, and hounded and harassed American NGOs. This almost enters the realms of surreal and satirical performance art—president as provocateur.