Sunday morning was bustling at the Market Square in Helsinki. Orange tents dotted the harbor looking out to the Baltic Sea as local merchants sold vibrantly colored fruits, carved wooden trinkets and reindeer pelts in the unusually warm weather.
On Monday, all will be quiet as the market closes for the action that will take place right down the street: a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the days leading up to the summit at the yellow Presidential Palace in Helsinki, a stone’s throw from the Market Square, the stakes were raised significantly. On Friday, the Justice Department charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and state election systems, as part of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
It’s a matter of serious concern for the United States, especially as it approaches the midterm elections. The U.S. president is meeting a foreign adversary just days after new evidence emerged that his country sought to undermine the integrity of the American electoral system.
But in the past, Trump has refused to acknowledge assessments of Russian election interference, and he continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the investigation that has uncovered the latest alleged crimes. In recent days, Trump again blamed the Obama Administration for failing to stop Russian meddling, called special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation a “rigged witch hunt,” and raised conspiracy theories about a “deep state” ought to undermine his presidency — flying in the face of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s plea to “ avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats” when considering the news.
The official White House statement also highlighted the fact that the charges do not implicate any Americans, so therefore don’t offer any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and even cast some doubt on the charges by referring to it as an “alleged hacking.” (U.S. intelligence agencies agree that the Democrats were hacked and that Russian intelligence was involved.) “Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
While it’s true that the charges did not mention any American involvement, Trump’s constant focus on how the investigation reflects on him undercuts any sense of urgency to push back against Russian meddling. “This is the last significant opportunity we have to force Russia down from its plans to launch another major assault on our democracy,” says Brett Bruen, former White House director of Global Engagement and now head of the Global Situation Room. “Failure to aggressively address this issue now will be interpreted by Moscow as a green light to continue meddling in our Congressional elections this fall.”
(Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Saturday that U.S. intelligence officials are seeing “persistent Russian efforts using social media, sympathetic spokespeople and other fronts to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American people” but that Russia doesn’t seem to be targeting the midterms with the same “scale or scope” that it did the 2016 presidential election.)
Trump has assured the American people that he will raise the issue with Putin. “I will absolutely bring that up,” he said at a press conference in Britain on Friday, just before the charges were announced but after he was reportedly informed of them. “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.’ There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”
Trump should feel pressure to ask it in light of the new indictments. But throughout his presidency, he has struggled to get out from under the cloud of the special counsel investigation and been defensive about the idea that Russia may have influenced the outcome of the election, and he may be as eager to move on from the conversation as Putin. “Neither he nor Putin want to disrupt the overall optics of improving relations,” says Bruen. “They will likely try to compartmentalize it by throwing out some new plan for cooperation they hope will dominate the coverage.”
So while Trump has promised to broach election meddling with Putin, he’ll be much more eager to dwell on other topics, including how to negotiate a deal on nuclear weapons reductions. If the two leaders could promote a meeting that focused on arms control or other productive matters, Trump could claim victory on moving towards a better relationship with Russia, something he often says he hopes for. But that itself would be a major win for Putin, thawing the Western freeze of Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and coming on the heels of a week where Trump criticized Western allies at the NATO summit and in the U.K.
“The hallmark of a KGB officer is the ability to read, exploit and nudge people or pull people in their direction,” says John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council, referring to Putin’s past as a KGB agent in the Soviet Union. “Mr. Putin is an expert on this, and you can be sure he’s been studying President Trump very closely, and his intention is to try to get the president to say things which would be considered favorable towards Russian policy despite their aggressive intent and actions.”
Trump had the weekend to mull his approach to the meeting on a golf trip to Scotland, and he continued pressing the politics of the alleged Russian crimes, trying to undercut the idea that Russia tried to help him through their intervention. “I think the DNC should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked,” he told CBS. “I heard they were trying to hack the Republicans too, but, and this may be wrong, but they had much stronger defenses.”
In the same interview he decided to sound a skeptical tune about his meeting with Putin, perhaps to prepare those looking for a dramatic confrontation on the new indictments. Looking relaxed in an open collar and a white “USA” baseball cap at his Turnberry resort, Trump said, “I’m not going with high expectations.”