The disagreements, surprises and compromises that arose during the G-7 summit in Paris all have implications for the future of the world’s biggest industrialized democracies. But they distract from a deep mystery that holds more importance: What is it with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin?
Trump has trouble getting along with leaders from Germany, France and Japan. His respect for anyone who works for him is often transitory. But when it comes to the Russian president, Trump is a model of loving devotion.
In a presidency notorious for its unpredictability and confusion, Trump’s attitude toward Putin brings to mind Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who proclaims, “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”
The Group of Seven was the Group of Eight until 2014, when the members evicted Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But Trump told his fellow leaders that Russia should be welcomed back despite that ongoing crime. He even said he might invite Putin to next year’s G-7 meeting, which Trump is scheduled to host.
His lobbying for Putin did not go over well. Reported The Washington Post: “Having such a forceful advocate for an authoritarian leader inside the room of democracies profoundly shaped the overall tone of the summit, one senior official said. ‘The consequence is the same as if one of the participants is a dictator,’ the official said.”
The Obama administration, along with our allies, retaliated in 2014 by imposing economic sanctions. That was not enough for a bipartisan group of members of Congress, led by House Speaker John Boehner, who called the invasion “a grotesque violation of international law, a challenge to the West and an assault on the international order established at such great cost in the wake of World War II.”
They pressed Barack Obama to provide military weaponry to help Ukraine resist the Russians. At the 2016 Republican convention, though, Trump’s campaign staffers blocked an effort to include that policy in the GOP platform.
Trump’s problem was that the preference of Ukrainians did not align with the preferences of Putin, who saw Crimea as rightfully his and had no patience with nonviolent avenues of recourse. Whatever Putin wants, Trump is eager to provide.
Once in office, he did agree to allow weapons sales to Ukraine, giving in to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He has also gone along with Congress in sanctioning Russia. But Trump’s policy on these matters is a result of his unwillingness to challenge GOP hawks, not his desire to challenge Putin.
No president has ever behaved in a more accommodating manner toward the Kremlin. When Trump met with Putin in Helsinki last year, he indicated he believed the Russian leader’s denial of meddling in the U.S. election. When Putin won an election that was obviously rigged, Trump’s advisers told him not to congratulate Putin. Trump did it anyway.
This is not a shrewd game that Trump is playing to advance U.S. interests. He has gotten nothing of note in return. The Russians are still in Crimea, still in Syria and still allied with Iran. They are also providing military assistance to the Venezuelan government, which Trump would like to bring down.
The question is not whether he’s a puppet of Putin but why. Perhaps it’s simple gratitude. The Russian government took numerous steps to help get him elected, and Putin said he wanted Trump to win.
Maybe it’s greed. As his attorney Michael Cohen later revealed, Trump was secretly trying for most of 2016 to get approval for a Trump Tower Moscow – reason enough for him to curry favor with the Kremlin.
He could also have other Russian deals, debts or relationships that make him eager to placate Putin. That would explain why Trump has refused to release his tax returns. Or Putin could possess compromising information about the president or his family members that makes Trump terrified of displeasing him.
I may be overthinking this. It could be that Trump is gullible, susceptible to flattery, infatuated with strongmen, cognitively impaired or gripped by fantasies of what he might win from Putin. It could be he’s just a fool.
The president of the United States is supposed to be the servant of the American people. Trump acts as though he works for someone else. Maybe someday we’ll find out why.