President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit two weeks ago in an informal meeting that had been kept secret until Tuesday night. The meeting, which the White House insists was much ado about nothing but which reportedly lasted as long as an hour, came after an official one that had been made public. The informal meeting included just Trump, Putin and Putin’s interpreter, as The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Philip Rucker report.
That means we’ll probably never really know what was said. The question then is why: Why did Trump see fit to do something that may look so suspicious and raise even more concerns about his relationship with Russia? And why did he and/or the White House not disclose it?
I’ve been thinking about Trump’s flirtation with Russia for the better part of the past two years, and I’ve boiled it down to three theories:
1) There is something nefarious going on
This is the preferred theory of Trump’s opponents. It’s the idea that Trump met secretly with Putin because they had some business that needed to be discussed away from prying eyes — even the prying eyes of Trump’s own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who was the only other U.S. official in the earlier, two-hour-plus meeting.
It’s tough to dispute that it looks like Trump was trying to avoid this being news. If the White House knew about this and said nothing, that looks suspicious. And if Trump kept it secret from the White House itself, that looks suspicious, too. What couldn’t be discussed in that longer-than-expected previous meeting of which we have no official record? Was Trump even friendlier with Putin than he was when he apparently didn’t press him all that hard on Russia’s alleged hacking in the 2016 election?
If there is something nefarious going on, a private, undisclosed conversation that was reportedly out of earshot of other world leaders would be a great place to do it. And given the Russian government’s and Trump’s track records, it’s not like we’re going to get a straight answer on what they talked about.
2) Trump is oblivious to how this might be perceived
I’ve framed many of Trump’s actions under the rubric of Adam Carolla’s “Stupid or Liar” theory before. This reason would be the “stupid” part of that equation.
Given the Russia investigation is targeting Trump himself, in addition to his much-criticized friendliness toward Putin, it’s difficult to think that Trump is simply unaware of how something like this might be perceived. But Trump has demonstrated a pretty good lack of political awareness in plenty of other areas, including numerous instances with regard to the Russia investigation. (Think: Telling Lester Holt that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, which has led special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump for potential obstruction of justice.)
Trump also has shown that he disregards the advice of those around him, so even if someone in the White House was telling him to tread lightly around Putin, there is no guarantee he would heed that advice.
If Trump is indeed oblivious to how this kind of thing could play out, he’s got real problems on that front.
3) Trump is simply addicted to causing controversy and/or sees it as a GOP base play
Whenever a politician does something suspect, the analyst in me is trained to look for the political advantage. Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 election had plenty of folks hailing his little-understood political genius and suggesting the media simply missed what appealed to Trump supporters.
There is also a significant chance that Trump loves the kind of coverage that ensues from these kinds of meetings. He’s got plausible deniability that anything unsavory happened — after all, who is going to contradict that? Putin? The translator? — and it gets the media in a fuss about what may have happened. Trump seems to love the idea of wielding all of that fuss and using it to decry the “fakes news media” to rally his base.
And perhaps that’s the calculation. But at this point Trump and his team have to be wondering: What’s the payoff? What is he really getting out of it? Trump’s approval rating is the lowest in modern presidential history, the GOP-controlled Congress hasn’t passed any signature legislation, his party split on one of his signature promises on the health-care bill, and all Trump has to show for it is a mostly intact group of Republican voters who say they still like him.
If Trump has designs upon being a great president and winning so much that people would get tired of it, stuff like this sure doesn’t seem to be paying dividends.