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Former diplomat: Proposed Trump-Putin summit in DC 'unimaginable,' 'indefensible'

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin leave after a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“Say that again?” asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats Thursday when informed that President Donald Trump has proposed a second summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Washington this fall.

MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell, moderating a discussion with Coats at the Aspen Security Forum, repeated the news that National Security Adviser John Bolton had been directed to invite Putin to Washington, which was announced in a tweet by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

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“Okay,” Coats said after a pause. “That’s going to be special.”

Coats has found himself publicly at odds with the president this week, as Trump’s first one-on-one summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland revived questions about whether the president supports the intelligence community’s finding that Putin was responsible for efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

At a news conference Monday, Trump expressed confidence in his intelligence agencies, but he expressed equal confidence in Putin’s denials. Hours later, Coats issued a statement reaffirming Russia’s role that was reportedly not approved by the White House.

“I was just doing my job,” Coats said Thursday of sending that statement.

According to former State Department officials, top national security officials like Coats would typically be included in a discussion of the pros and cons of a meeting with a former head of state before the invitation is sent. That clearly did not happen this time.

“To be caught by surprise like that, at a minimum it looks bad…I’ve never seen an administration of either stripe do something like this,” said Robert Loftis, a former ambassador who has worked under presidents from both parties.

Coats was not alone in being caught off-guard by the invitation. Russian officials described the offer as surprising, but Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the U.S., told the Associated Press they are open to the proposal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday it is “incredibly important” for the two leaders to continue meeting to resolve their differences.

“I think this makes enormous sense,” he said of a prospective Washington meeting, “and I’m very hopeful that meeting will take place this fall.”

As the president turns his attention to a second summit, questions remain about what transpired during the first. Trump and Putin met privately for about two hours, and Russian officials have repeatedly suggested verbal agreements were reached, but few details have been released by either side.

“What’s astonishing here is they have a summit in Helsinki, the president meets with Putin alone and no one…has any idea what was discussed, let alone agreed to,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

On Twitter Thursday, President Trump laid out an agenda of issues he wants to follow up on when he and Putin next meet.

“I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more,” he wrote.

Trump and Putin have both portrayed the Helsinki discussion as a success. Former diplomats agree it was a victory for Putin, but they are uncertain what, if anything, it accomplished for the U.S. They also fear a second meeting in Washington would be seen as rewarding Russia for its malfeasance.

“It would show he certainly has the favor of President Trump,” said Loftis, now director of graduate studies at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

“What it says is, ‘You have carte blanche to do what you want. We’re not upset about anything,’” Cavanaugh said.

The optics of the Helsinki meeting were concerning enough for critics, with Trump castigating NATO allies publicly in Brussels, criticizing the British prime minister in the press, and then allowing Putin’s dubious claims to go unanswered when standing side-by-side with him.

“Now the president is inviting Putin to come to the U.S. right before our next election as a guest of honor in the White House?” Cavanaugh said. “It’s, from a diplomatic view, unimaginable. From a policy view, indefensible.”

From a political perspective, it is also puzzling.

“The issues surrounding Russia are not helping Republicans, full-stop,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and host of the “Mack on Politics” podcast.

A fall visit by Putin would presumably come just before or soon after the midterm elections, thrusting President Trump’s unusually cordial relationship with him to the forefront of public debate at a time when Republicans would rather be talking about pretty much anything else.

“The real cost is the news about Russia crowds out other news that might be positive,” Mackowiak said. With a strong economy, a booming jobs market, and likely a successful Supreme Court nomination, playing defense on Russia is at best a distraction for GOP candidates.

The first summit between the two leaders and the president’s comments at a press conference afterward drew nearly universal condemnation from members of both parties. Trump’ subsequent walk back of his support for Putin, claiming he had misspoken, satisfied many prominent Republicans, but others remain critical.

“For the most part, what this will likely do is inflame tensions with congressional Republicans who are already facing tough races back home,” said Hamza Khan, a Democratic strategist and founder of the Pluralism Project.

Republicans who continue to question Trump’s deference to Putin risk alienating base voters who they need to turn out in November to retain control of Congress. Though initial polling suggests the public at large was troubled by the president’s press conference performance this week, most GOP voters approve of his handling of the summit.

Democrats have continued to pile on Trump despite the administration’s attempts to recast his comments, and the invitation to Putin, who has not been to the White House since 2005, offered more fuel for their attacks.

“Most Americans, when their homes get broken into, they upgrade their security system, they don’t invite the burglar over for dinner,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said on CNN Friday. “And the president shouldn’t let Vladimir Putin in the Rose Garden for a victory lap.”

Democrats hammering Trump over Russia face a similar messaging trade-off that Republicans defending him do.

“They appear to be motivated about health care and immigration. If they’re talking about Russia, they’re not talking about those two things,” Mackowiak said.

If a second summit does not happen before the election, he expects any political damage done by Monday’s meeting to fade long before November.

“July 16 is not going to determine who wins the midterms. It’s just not. Everybody talks about how Trump creates more news in a week than other presidents do in a year and that’s true here,” Mackowiak said Friday as headlines about Helsinki were crowded out by reports of Trump’s personal attorney recording a conversation about a payoff to a former Playboy model.

Khan also cautioned Trump’s critics against overplaying the Russian card.

“At the end of the day, if Democrats think they can win the election simply by talking about Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, that would be a mistake,” he said. “Our core focus should be on the uneven economic recovery, Mr. Trump’s overall incompetence, and defining what it means to be a true patriot.”

The progressive resistance remains fired up for a fight, but Democrats also need to appeal to new voters and expand their base. Issues like immigration and racial equality may resonate more than conspiracy theories about the Kremlin.

“This election is really a question of who we are as a country,” Khan said.

If President Trump is serious about meeting with Putin again this fall, experts say he would be well-served to approach this summit much more conventionally than the first.

“I would suggest they actually have some idea of what concrete measures they want to come out of this,” Loftis said.

Much like Trump’s meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month, the Helsinki summit was atypical in that the heads of state were meeting one-on-one before diplomats negotiated clear objectives.

“Usually, it’s when you’ve got something you want to finalize or advance that you can’t do at a lower level, closing a deal so to speak,” Loftis said.

Cavanaugh recalled working in the State Department when President Ronald Reagan was meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Secretaries of state and negotiators worked out details beforehand, and they received readouts immediately after the leaders convened.

“You bring presidents together to sign [agreements]…,” he said. “This risks simply turning it into a rewarding photo op because we have no sign anything was achieved in Helsinki.”

The symbolism of the president of the United States rolling out the red carpet for Putin at the White House would be problematic, both internationally and domestically. Some more hawkish officials within the Trump administration might object, and if protests in Lafayette Park this week are any indication, the local population would object even more strenuously.

“I can’t imagine he would be welcomed warmly on the streets of Washington, D.C.,” Loftis said.

Bringing a divisive foreign leader to town at a time of heightened political polarization surrounding pivotal elections in which intelligence officials believe his country is still actively interfering would make difficult and sensitive talks even trickier from Trump to navigate.

“This is one that has more potential to go sour than most others, just because of the politics surrounding it,” Loftis said.

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