There was not a lot of re-litigating of the past

John Cassidy at the New Yorker wonders if the US got much out of Trump’s date with Putin.

Some White House officials were reportedly so worried about the Russian leader taking advantage of Trump that they wanted to expand the meeting to involve other aides, such as H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on the National Security Council. Ultimately, though, all staffers were excluded from the meeting—there weren’t even any official note-takers in the room. (On social media, some of Trump’s critics lightheartedly noted that this would make it easier for the President to slip some state secrets to Putin, or perhaps promise him Alaska in exchange for a new hotel in Moscow.)

Lightheartedly? Because it was a joke? I don’t think it’s a joke; I think it’s the pathetic reality.

After the journalists left, the talks went on and on. As the world waited, it was tempting to speculate on why the confab was lasting so long. Putin chooses his words carefully; Trump, even now, is known to regale almost everyone he meets with details of his election victory. Maybe that was it.

No doubt that was it for ten minutes or so…but that still leaves 125 minutes for giving away Alaska and giggling over Putin’s success at hacking our election.

[W]hen Tillerson personally delivered the post-meeting readout to reporters, he said that Trump had started out “by raising the concern of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Tillerson went on: “The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.” The Russian leader also asked the U.S. side to provide proof of Russian involvement, Tillerson said.

Since Trump said as recently as Thursday that “nobody really knows” who interfered in the election, he was hardly in a position to contradict Putin’s denials, even if he had wanted to. In any case, Tillerson made clear that really confronting Putin, or punishing him, was far from the President’s intention. “He pressed him and then felt like, at this point let’s talk about, how do we go forward?” Tillerson said. The two leaders then moved onto other issues, including Syria, for which they discussed a new ceasefire that is supposed to go into effect in the southeast of the country, Tillerson said. “There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. . . . There was not a lot of re-litigating of the past,” he said.

Ah yes, “re-litigating the past,” i.e. making it clear to Putin that it’s not ok for him to hack US elections. (The US has hacked other people’s elections, and worse; it has supported coups to overthrow elected leaders and install dictators. We should be making major reparations. That doesn’t mean Putin is the guy to punish us.) It’s interesting that the “Secretary of State” i.e. former Exxon CEO in way over his head thinks it appropriate to belittle the idea of holding Putin accountable for hacking our election.

It should be noted that Lavrov, Tillerson’s opposite counterpart, put a very different spin on the meeting when he spoke to reporters. Lucian Kim, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, tweeted, “Lavrov: Trump mentioned that in US certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof.” In another tweet, Kim said, “Lavrov: Trump said he heard Putin’s statements that Russia didn’t hack election and accepts them.”

Without access to a transcript, which seemingly doesn’t exist, it was hard to know what to make of these two accounts of the meeting, or whether they can be reconciled. But a few things did seem clear.

Putin had got what he wanted from the meeting: a commitment from the U.S. to move on from the election controversy and normalize relations. In addition to working toward a ceasefire in Syria, Lavrov said that the two sides had agreed to name new ambassadors, establish a working group on cybersecurity, and open a channel of discussion about Ukraine. Speaking to Russian reporters, Putin himself said, “We’ve had a very long discussion with the U.S. President. Many issues accrued, including Ukraine, Syria, and other problems, as well as some bilateral issues.” He didn’t mention anything about Trump bringing up Russian meddling.

Trump, for his part, could claim that he had raised the question of Russian interference, even if he did so only in the most perfunctory of fashions. But, in substantive terms, what had he gotten back from Putin? There was no word from Tillerson on any Russian concessions on North Korea, a pressing issue on which Moscow has sided with Beijing in opposing further U.N. sanctions. Indeed, Lavrov mentioned North Korea as one of two issues the two sides couldn’t agree on.

Trump got to meet his hero. End of story. Can we move on now?

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