After the summit comes the backlash, and after the backlash comes the climbdown. If Trump intended for his meeting with Vladimir Putin to set Russia and the United States on a course to a warmer relationship—something the U.S. president has repeatedly said he wants—his performance has achieved just the opposite. In his eagerness to pursue better relations with Putin—for example, by casting doubt on his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the United States election to help Trump win—he has given more ammunition to those in government who seek to constrain him. Trump’s deferential behavior to Putin in Helsinki has undermined the president’s own desire to “reset” the Russia relationship, likely ensuring just the opposite: a more hawkish approach to Russia from his own government.
Trump tried to walk back his disparagement of the U.S. intelligence community, but his confusing statement (“I meant to say wouldn’t, not would”) is unlikely to convince his critics. That’s because Trump, even before he was president, has been very consistent in his positive view of Putin and desire to “get along” with Russia. Contrary to his stated desires, however, his administration (with pressure from Congress) has pursued an assertive deterrence policy on Russia. The gap between the president’s pro-Russian rhetoric and his administration’s hawkish policies has grown over the course of Trump’s term, and is now poised to grow further still.
Since Trump took office, the U.S. has sanctioned more than 200 Russian individuals and entities, expelled 60 Russian diplomats, closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, approved weapons sales to Ukraine, and significantly increased spending on European defense meant to deter Russia. And despite Trump’s lambasting of European allies for not spending more on defense at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels, the U.S. signed the joint NATO communique, which condemned Russia for its annexation of Crimea, its alleged nerve-agent attack in the United Kingdom, and other acts of aggression against European countries. In 2017, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that prevents the president from unilaterally removing sanctions on Russia without Congress’s consent. The law also grants a broad mandate to the administration for sanctioning Russian companies and Putin’s cronies. Oddly, the president himself has appointed advisers, most notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National-Security Adviser John Bolton, who are known for their hawkish views on Russia.
In stark contrast to the administration’s policies, however, Trump’s own views on Russia don’t seem to have shifted—something Trump made clear in the lead-up to the Helsinki meeting. Trump suggested that he would be open to recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea because “everyone there speaks Russian.” He called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7. At a rally in Montana earlier this month, Trump said that Putin is “fine.” There is no shortage of evidence that despite occasional lip service to being tougher on Russia than Obama, Trump’s affinity for Putin in particular has remained unshakeable. Indeed, Trump has likely grown increasingly impatient with the constraints his advisers, Congress, and the unfolding special-counsel investigation have placed on his ability to pursue that elusive U.S.-Russia friendship. He undoubtedly felt frustrated that he was prevented from meeting with Putin earlier in his presidency and instead had to seek out opportunities to talk with Putin one-on-one on the sidelines of other meetings (which he did twice, in Germany and Vietnam). These frustrations likely built up when he went against his advisers and called to congratulate Putin on his sham election victory in March. It was during that call that Trump finally invited Putin for a tete-a-tete and set the wheels in motion for Helsinki.
After all the anticipation, the Helsinki meeting was an opportunity for Trump to try to close the gap between his desires and his administration’s policy. And, flying high from what Trump saw as a successful meeting with Kim Jong Un last month—a meeting he also accepted against the recommendation of his advisers—he could well have succeeded. Instead, with his dismal performance, Trump shot himself in the foot. Even some of his usual supporters seemed to have turned on him. Newt Gingrich, usually a staunch defender of the president, tweeted that Trump made “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” which “must be corrected—immediately.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, suggested that the Senate may take up new legislation to address the Russian threat. In January, Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen introduced a bill that would require the administration to implement sanctions on Russia within 10 days if Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats determines that the Kremlin has interfered in any future elections. It likely had little chance of amassing enough support before the Helsinki summit, but it’s gaining traction now. And if President Trump was hoping to be able to remove sanctions on Russia, he has achieved the opposite: The bill would require even harsher sanctions on Russia’s economy, and it would be up to Coats, who has reaffirmed that Russia is actively carrying out influence operations ahead of the fall midterms, to make that call. Earlier this month, the Senate also passed, 97–2, a motion to support NATO. Some Congressional members are now considering new initiatives that would make it impossible for the U.S. president to pull out of the alliance.
For Trump, then, the summit was not only an embarrassment; it also may have locked him into a more hawkish Russia policy. Indeed, by Wednesday he was telling the press that “there’s been no president, ever, as tough as I have been on Russia.” Amid swirling speculations on the motivations behind Trump’s behavior—whether that be genuine admiration for strongmen, ignorance, or kompromat—he’s making it more difficult to turn his Russia-friendly inclinations into policy.