The leaders diplomatic veneer speedily wore off at an at times farcical press conference
At Monday's summit in Helsinki, two leaders not known for their love of diplomacy both tried out an act as elder statesmen, trading lofty phrases about shared interests and respect that could turn around the distressed relations between Russia and the United States.
The shtick lasted about a half hour before Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's political instincts took over and their first official summit press conference descended into farce.
” What do you think, we collect kompromat on all businessmen who come to Russia ?” said Putin at one point without denying that he had met damaging information about Trump.” Get this idea out of your head .”
” What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC ?” Trump asked 300 journalists in a reception hall at the Finnish presidential palace.” What happened to Hillary Clinton's emails ?”
Nuclear policy and cybersecurity were on this summit's loosely defined agenda, but when the two emerged after four hours of deliberations- a tete-a-tete with merely interpreters followed by lunch with senior aides- there was little to feed to the press.
Some nervous foreign policy hands said they feared Trump and Putin might conclude a grand bargain at this summit, a trade of US interests in Syria for Russian interests in eastern Europe. But there was no sign of any substantial progress by Monday evening, when the two spoke vaguely about their discussions and blandly praised the politics of dialogue.
But Trump had handed Putin a singular media victory, the soundbite of a US president at a summit telling the world that he did not believe his intelligence or law enforcement agents in favour of the foreign leader he had gone to meet.
” Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything ,” Trump said as he addressed reporters.” I would rather take a political hazard in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics .”
Soon reporters moved the discussion toward questions of collusion. Peppered with questions from an impatient audience, the two men shared in a favourite pastime: mocking the US press corps.
Putin made an” incredible offer ,” Trump said, to let US researchers come to Russia to discuss allegations of election interference with Russian law enforcement.
And, along the way, Putin admitted deadpan to a journalist that he wanted Trump to win the US elections” because he was the one who wanted to normalise relations with Russia “.
Earlier, there was plenty of pomp when this circus came to township, transforming summery Helsinki into a centre of international attention virtually overnight. Trump and Putin sent almost impossibly big corteges down Mannerheimintie, the main street of the Finnish capital, stopping traffic and leaving ordinary Finns lined up along the road, wondering what they had done to deserve this.
An apparent protester was wrestled out of the foyer at the lavish presidential palace after trying to hold up a sign about the” nuclear test forbidding pact “.
And Putin even devoted Trump a football, which the American president ricochetted over to his wife, Melania, in front of several hundred journalists. The US president, apparently guessing at Putin's weak spot, had relentlessly complimented the Russian on the most recent World Cup, which he called ” one of the best ever” and complimented the play of the Russian side.
” I merely watched a US secret service agent put the football ball Putin gave Trump through a security scanner outside the Pres. Palace ,” Bill Neely, a reporter for NBC, wrote afterward in a tweet.” He didn't smile when I joked about it .”
The message seemed clear. Even if Trump trusts Putin, the secret service are not taking any chances.
Lost in the fireworks of Monday evening's press conference of course was any real substance about what the two world leaders talked about.
They perhaps hoped that this sight would recall the great moments of Soviet-US diplomacy, the 1975 Helsinki accords where 35 countries including the Soviet Union agreed to respect territorial sovereignty and human rights. Or perhaps the discussions between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan a decade afterward with the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
But ultimately the two had to be content to enjoy one another's company.” I called him a competitor and a good competitor he is. I guess the word challenger is a compliment ,” Trump told reporters. Putin praised the talks in an remarkably frank way:” I and President Trump spoke well .”
They had both looked impossibly glum when they eventually sat down together at the palace on Monday.
Putin slouched like a kid in the back of the class, as Barack Obama once said, while Trump sported a deep frown that some chalked up to Putin landing here almost an hour late.
It was an inauspicious start to a summit that seemed more about optics than substance. Putin arrived at the presidential palace first, fifteen minutes late, where Trump headed to even later from the Hilton Kalastajantorppa.
Then Trump dedicated Putin a wink, a gesture that seemed to establish some level of warmth between the two leaders, which has been viewed with distrust in the west.
” I genuinely believe the world wants to see us get along ,” Trump said.” We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90% of the nuclear- and that's not a good thing it's a bad thing. I think we can hopefully do something about that because it is not a positive force-out it is a negative force-out so we'll be talking about that among other things .”
Ultimately, the reduced expectations that both sides had set for this summit were met, a result that above all may fulfill Finns worried that their capital could one day be associated with a fateful deal.
” If the result is something in the tradition of those agreements, then it could be very positive, but if it's something that becomes Munich-Yalta-Helsinki, then that would be catastrophic ,” Laura Saarikoski, the US correspondent for the Finland daily newspaper, had told me, referring to talks synonymous with appeasement.
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