President Donald Trump’s fondness of Russia’s Vladimir Putin is no secret. Ever since he took office, Trump has publicly shown his tendency to believe Putin when he denies interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
A perfect instance of his inclination toward Putin was demonstrated in Trump’s refusal to heed his closest aides’ warnings when Putin won the election in 2018 amid allegations of fraud and Trump was strongly advised not to congratulate the Russian president. Despite such warnings, the President called Putin to personally congratulate him.
Several months later, at a gathering of world leaders, President Trump reportedly said that the contested Crimea region, which Russia annexed from Ukraine a few years back, was Russian, even though his administration has generally condemned the move.
The two leaders met again in Helsinki where President Trump accepted Putin’s denial regarding election interference despite findings by the American intelligence community that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election on Putin’s behest, Politico reports.
On Friday, Trump once again showed that he was more willing to believe Putin than U.S. intelligence agencies. When asked during the G20 summit in Japan if he would tell Putin not to meddle in future U.S. elections, Trump smiled and jokingly told his Russian counterpart not to do it, making light of the issue.
“Don’t meddle in the election, president. Don’t meddle in the election,” Trump said, grinning and Putin chuckled in response.
Current and former advisors of the President say that this could be a result of the fact that Trump dislikes being told what to do, so when he is being pressed to do something, he “mocks what is expected of him.”
His every refusal to conform with expected behavior toward Russia results in a backlash in Washington, but Trump’s advisers don’t think it hurts him politically.
For now, it is unclear whether Trump pressed Putin about election interference when the two met in Osaka. The White House readout of the meeting shows they discussed other issues and prior to leaving for the summit, Trump told reporters that it was none of their business what he says to Putin.
“Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet, there is a very strong domestic backlash after that meeting,” said Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration. “But, in part, it’s because there’s a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is.”
What worries critics the most is that some of the two presidents’ past meetings happened without U.S. aides or interpreters present and issues discussed during them remain secret. Friday’s meeting was described by a senior administration official as “normal talk.” The official noted that President Trump’s “message for Putin” regarding election interference was well known.
But Trump has been ambivalent on it, Politico writes. Just recently, he said that if a foreign government offered him dirt on a political opponent, he would listen to what they had to say.
However, while he refuses to criticize his Russian counterpart, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on a number of Russian individuals and entities over issues like election interference.
Putin appears to be equally fond of Trump, calling him “a talented person” who “knows very well what his voters expect from him.”
In a rare instance when Trump has sided with his aides’ stance on Russia was seen after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships with dozens of sailors. Back then, President Trump canceled a meeting with Putin, saying it could only take place after the situation was resolved.
“He has said on a number of occasions that he was prevented from working more closely with Putin in the first two years because of the Russia investigation,” said Thomas Wright, a geopolitics expert with the center-left Brookings Institution. “This is the first meeting with Putin since the Mueller report. And so if his own remarks are anything to go by, we may sort of expect to see him trying to open up a sort of deeper period of cooperation with Putin.”