So while we will likely see more of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric aimed at America’s allies, and encouraged by the Russians, we should not assume that any big words that could result from the Helsinki summit will necessarily translate into big actions.
Indeed, the perverse truth is that Trump’s determination to meet Putin without his team gives him room for maneuver. For this president, truth is something redefined daily, as his whims and needs dictate, and he can disavow any inconvenient conversation without forcing staffers and officials to have to fudge or lie.
But even if the “responsible adults” in the administration may be able to roll back any foolhardy promises or redefine any inconvenient outbursts, this does not mean that Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t matter.
The headline stories will probably be about what Trump promises Putin (and vice versa) and what damage he did to NATO before that. His bombshell demand that members spend 4 percent of GDP on defense, something he must know they cannot and will not, almost implies a man going out of his way for a fight.
But in real terms, Trump is unlikely to be able to secure more than that bland agreement to work together for better U.S.-Russian relations. That means that if the allies keep their nerve, realizing that a U.S. president cannot recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea or abandon his European allies without persuading a deeply skeptical Congress, then the immediate damage done will be contained.
Arguably, the more serious damage will be done to the U.S. body politic after the presidents go home, the photo ops are done, and the respective teams of officials try to make policy out of the soap opera.
The Trump who uses the “Russian threat” to lambaste the Germans (inaccurately) over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is the same one who opens to door to recognizing the annexation of Crimea. He genuinely doesn’t seem to feel consistency is a virtue, let alone a necessity. Somehow, though, his administration has to try to cut and paste together a policy out of his caprices and soundbites.
In the process, they inevitably—even with the best will in the world—have to cherry-pick from his demands, and modify them in line with all kinds of political and objective constraints. As they build that “bridge between the real world and the president’s,” they run the risk of arousing the ire of the commander-in-chief, or of his more rabid allies, eager to see conspiracy within the Beltway. The more loyalty and competence appear incompatible, the more dysfunctional the administration will become.
This also contributes to the sense of incoherence in U.S. policy that so alarms America’s allies and cheers its enemies. As one Russian Foreign Ministry staffer said to me, “Trump is a tornado. Fortunately for us, he spends most of his time on his side of the border.”