Why Trump won’t cancel the Putin summit
President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin has all the makings of a political disaster.
Millions of Americans believe Putin has some sinister influence over Trump. The Justice Department just indicted a dozen Russian military hackers for meddling in the 2016 election. Commentators and congressmen are demanding that Trump cancel Monday’s sit-down.
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And yet the howls of outrage seem to have made Trump only dig in deeper. To some of the president’s allies, the politics of seeing Putin could actually be a positive, at least within Trump’s hard-core base, which polls show has been warming up to the Russian leader and which largely writes off questions about Trump’s Russia ties as fake news.
That attitude was on clear display Saturday on Fox News, when Trump’s top media ally, Sean Hannity — who flew to Helsinki on his private jet last week — made the on-air case for why Trump’s critics are mistaken to believe the canny former KGB man will play Trump for a mark.
“Everyone in the media, they’re getting it all wrong,” Hannity explained. “He is going to be blunt, brutally honest, just like he was at NATO this week.” Hannity cited Trump’s June meeting with Kim Jong Un, which he said “critic after critic” had denounced in advance, but which Hannity cast as a success that prompted a halt in North Korea’s missile tests.
And as for that damning Friday indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller? “The timing to me was dubious,” Hannity said, suggesting that the truly outrageous meddling was that of the Justice Department in Trump’s diplomacy.
Trump also cast the media as the enemy in Sunday tweets as he departed for Helsinki, complaining that no matter how many concessions he might get from Putin — including being “given the great city of Moscow” — he would never win due credit.
“Much of the news media is indeed the enemy of the people,” he wrote. (It is unclear whether Trump understood that he was echoing a favorite expression of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.)
There’s good reason to think Trump’s base is buying it. Mueller’s poll numbers have plunged among Republicans in recent months. Meanwhile, in an extraordinary development, Putin’s GOP popularity has risen over the past two years since Trump began recasting the Russian leader as a potential U.S. ally who somehow keeps getting wrongly accused of nefarious acts.
Republican voters, after all, revile North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But Trump managed to spin his taboo Singapore summit with the dictator into an epic spectacle, one that nuclear experts called a farce but left GOP partisans talking Nobel Prize. That Trump seemed to defy a near-unanimous media consensus only added to the satisfaction.
“What his base looks at is a guy who is putting America’s interest first,” said Trump’s former chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon.
Bannon said that hard-core Republicans are receptive to Trump’s message that Russia can be a U.S. partner, citing the pragmatic alliance between Washington and Moscow against Nazi Germany.
“The base has so many veterans in it,” Bannon said. “They do realize we would have never won World War II without the Russians as allies. This is basic. The Russians are the ones that really broke the back of the German army.”
Bannon, who himself has been a sharp critic of Putin in the past, added: “We don’t need more enemies. We have enough issues in the world with things like Iran and China and Korea.”
Some Trump allies also believe that the cost of several more days of wall-to-wall speculation about whether Trump is somehow under Putin’s malign influence will be at least partly balanced by images of the president on the global stage, talking nuclear arms and the Middle East with a top world leader.
That’s a look for which every past president has been eager. Another former White House official, Andrew Surabian, compared Monday’s tete-a-tete to President Ronald Reagan’s historic meetings with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those two men also sat down together without notetakers or other senior officials in the room, just as Trump and Putin will, to the particular dismay of many Democrats and foreign policy experts who insist Trump will get played.