HAMBURG — When it comes to dealing with Russia, President Donald Trump is keeping his promise.
As president, Trump has backed away from campaign promises to impose tariffs on China, scrap the Iran nuclear deal and quickly build a wall on the Mexican border.
But nothing has deterred him from his vow to test the possibilities of diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not three federal investigations, not talk of impeachment—not even his wife.
First Lady Melania Trump interrupted her husband’s Friday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin here at the G-20 summit in an unsuccessful attempt to end an unexpectedly long and chatty session between the leaders of two ostensibly hostile powers.
“We went another hour after she came in to see us,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in a briefing afterwards, with top White House and State Department aides looking on. “There was such a level exchange and engagement,” between Trump and Putin, he added, “neither of them wanted to stop.”
Despite all the congressional hearings, the accusations of a White House cover-up of Russia ties, and the thousands of hours of withering cable news coverage, Trump wasn’t afraid to be caught by the cameras smiling as he met Putin for the first time, or to be the first to extend his arm for a handshake.
It was a marked contrast to the way his predecessor, President Barack Obama, glowered at Putin at last year’s last G-20 summit. For more than two years prior to that, Obama had limited his contacts with Putin in an effort to shame and isolate the Russian leader for actions like granting asylum to Edward Snowden and annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Many other presidents, for reasons of politics of principle, might have avoided a scheduled meeting with Putin. Some advisers reportedly urged Trump to limit his contact with the Russian to a short, impromptu chat instead of the formal sit-down of more than two hours they held today.
“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump declared before meeting with the man widely accused of trying to distort American democracy, but whom Trump has virtually never criticized in public.
In the estimation of Tillerson, who was in the room, the men “connected very quickly” and enjoyed “positive chemistry.”
For Trump, it was a step towards fulfilling a vision that dates to early in the 2016 campaign—one that imagines Washington and Moscow as partners, not adversaries.
“This is a president who is committed to try and improve relations with Russia. He feels very strongly about that” Dmitri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, told POLITICO last week.
Trump has never made a secret of it: as a candidate, he often said he thought he would “get along great” with the authoritarian Russian leader.
“If we could get along with Russia, wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Trump asked last summer. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” he said soon after.
Trump even warned that a Hillary Clinton presidency could precipitate “World War III” in Syria, because Clinton had threatened to push back against Russia’s military intervention.
Instead, Trump won. On Friday, his administration announced a deal with Moscow brokering a ceasefire in southwestern Syria. If the ceasefire works, one senior administration official said Friday, “that bodes well for the possibility of working with the Russians on other aspects of resolution of the Syria conflict.”
Trump’s critics suspect his outreach to Putin is driven by some unseen influence—perhaps undisclosed business dealings with Russia. They note that Putin has long pursued good relations with Washington, but mainly to elevate his country’s internationalstature and win geopolitical concessions that previous presidents have been unwilling to give.
Trump’s allies and advisers say it’s simpler than that. Trump simply believes that it’s too dangerous for Russia and the U.S., two major nuclear powers with a history of threatening one another’s annihilation, to be in a state of conflict.
“This is a really important relationship, the two largest nuclear powers in the world,” Tillerson said Friday. “We simply have to find a way to start moving forward.”
And although Trump’s top diplomat said that the president and his Russian counterpart had a “robust and lengthy exchange” on the subject of Russian interference in the U.S. election, he did not say that Trump threatened Putin with any retribution.
Instead, he suggested it was time to move past the subject. “It’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution,” Tillerson said.
“There was not a lot of relitigating the past,” he added. “The leaders felt that there’s a lot of things in the past that we’re unhappy about. We’re unhappy, they’re unhappy.”
And so they discussed how their countries can “move forward” into an era of warmer relations—an outcome that, by all available evidence, and for whatever reason, would make Donald Trump very happy indeed.