Trump meets Putin

President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin is being panned, and not just by the usual suspects on the left and in the media. Conservatives, e.g., Ralph Peters and Steve Hayes, have dished out some of the harshest criticism.

The problem with most of the criticisms is that we don’t know what actually happened during the meeting. Hayes relies mainly on Rex Tillerson’s saccharine account.

Tillerson is probably too shrewd to tell us what he really thinks about the meeting. He may not be shrewd enough to know what Trump really thinks about it. Yet the meeting was mostly about how the two sides — and especially the two leaders — sized each other up.

There are conflicting accounts about how the Russia election interference matter was resolved. The Russians say Trump accepted Putin’s denial of interference. Our side disputes this, saying that Trump merely acknowledged the denial, and that this was more a case of agreeing to disagree.

I hope Trump will conclude from this dispute that Putin and his team are liars who can’t be trusted. But who knows?

We do know that Trump isn’t going to punish Russia for its interference in the election. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether he should, but to say, as Hayes does, that Trump “caved” is unfair.

Punishing Russia would have major consequences for all aspects of U.S.-Russia relations. It would shape our overall Russia policy and take some options off the table. Trump was under no obligation to make punishing the Russians for doing what Russia (and to some extent the U.S.) does the centerpiece of his Russia policy.

Russian interference in the election has become the be-all-and-end of the Russia conversation for Democrats and their media supporters, but for the rest of us it’s only one aspect, albeit a serious one, of the U.S.-Russia relationship. In this regard, it’s worth noting how tepid President Obama’s response was, at least until the Democrats lost the election.

Hayes also complains about what he thinks went down between Trump and Putin regarding Syria. He cites Tillerson’s statement that American and Russian “objectives are exactly the same.”

The statement is, as Hayes says, absurd. But there’s little reason to think that Trump, or even Tillerson, believes it. Indeed, Tillerson said again that there is no long term role for Assad, whom the Russians back, as the leader of Syria. Moreover, as Hayes acknowledges, our actions to date in Syria indicate that the administration is not basing Syria policy on a supposed identity of objectives with Moscow.

Trump and Putin agreed to a cease fire in one part of Syria. I assume that Trump regards this as a test case and that his attitude is “less trust but verify” than distrust but see.

Again, though, we don’the yet know what Trump thinks about this or how he intends to behave. That is probably how he likes it at this point in his presidency.

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