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Why Are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin Holding This Summit?

Trump appeared confused in Britain, as indictments were handed down at home: Ready for Putin to pick him clean?

Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the presidential palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.

By the time you are reading this, the much anticipated (dreaded?) summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will have begun. In an interview with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor on Sunday, Trump was asked about his goal for the meeting. He replied, “I’ll let you know after the meeting,” which certainly offers him plenty of room to declare it a success. Trump did say that “nothing bad” would happen, so we can all rest easy on that count.

The indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on criminal hacking charges, handed down on Friday, put this entire spectacle in a different light than it was in when Trump set off for the NATO meeting in Brussels last week. According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump was aware of the coming indictments, which means that trash-talking the investigation as a “witch hunt” during his trip — and attacking first the NATO alliance and then British Prime Minister Theresa May — were all done knowing that the noose was tightening. What seemed to be an aggressive play for dominance now looks like someone acting out under tremendous stress and anxiety.

Trump’s reckless interview with Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid the Sun, in which he insulted May for no good reason, bears out that impression. The reporter claimed that he rudely shooed away his aides who were trying to protect him from himself as he rambled on with a self-destructive rant that sounded as if he were trying to convince himself that he was in control.

In their joint press conference the next day Trump apologized to May, which was certainly unusual. Naturally he also lied and said that the newspaper hadn’t quoted him in full, claiming that he had a recording and could prove it, all they had to do was ask the press secretary. Of course the paper had already released the audio of the interview. Requests for the White House’s version have gone unanswered.

He was agitated and belligerent, and seemed confused at times. He picked fights with the press, and acted churlish about having to address the issue of Russian election interference yet again. He said he would ask Putin about it but he didn’t expect Putin to confess. There would be no “Perry Mason moment,” so there was nothing he could do.

But the president knew that special counsel Robert Mueller’s office was about to hand down an indictment that told the story in great detail. He knew that the scandal was about to shift into a higher gear.

His performance was extremely odd, even by his standards:

After the press conference mercilessly came to an end, the president and first lady met Queen Elizabeth. It could not have been more awkward. On one side of the TV screen, Rod Rosenstein was handing down indictments that detailed foreign intervention on behalf of Donald Trump in 2016. On the other side, Trump was acting clueless about how to behave around a 92-year-old woman, much less one accustomed to formal protocol. The whole world held its breath as he zigged and zagged in front of the queen, terrified that he might somehow knock her to the ground. It wasn’t the worst moment of the British leg of his trip, but it was certainly the weirdest.

Trump was obviously relieved to get out of there and head to his usual weekend gig doing personal appearances at his commercial properties. The Turnberry golf course in Scotland was an interesting choice. It has garnered a lot of press attention because nobody can figure out where Trump got the massive amount of cash he paid for what has become an ever-growing money pit.

He played golf and tweeted. He blamed the Obama administration for the Russian hacking. In his interview with CBS, he said:

I heard that they were trying, or people were trying, to hack into the RNC too. The Republican National Committee. But we had much better defenses. I’ve been told that by a number of people. We had much better defenses, so they couldn’t. I think the DNC should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked. They had bad defenses and they were able to be hacked. But I heard they were trying to hack the Republicans too. But — and this may be wrong — but they had much stronger defenses.

The US intelligence community, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the indictments handed down last Friday all make clear that the Russian agents were helping Trump. It’s unlikely they would have felt the need to try too hard to break into the RNC for that purpose.

As for what’s going to happen now, nobody has a clue, not even John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. He seems a little dazed and confused, which is not something we’ve seen before.

The single biggest unanswered question of this whole strange odyssey is this: Why are they having this summit? Trump’s meeting with Putin alone is obviously suspicious. Considering all the evidence of some sort of collusion that is already in the public domain, it seems reasonable to speculate that the president has nefarious motives. He is certainly behaving like someone with something to hide.

But he is also desperately whirling from one spectacle to another — summits, reality-show Supreme Court nominations, meetings with world leaders, rallies for the faithful. Whatever Trump did or didn’t do with Russians to get elected, it’s obvious that he has no idea how to do the job of president. He’s just putting on a show. This is how he’s gotten through his whole life, bluffing his way through, teetering on the edge of disaster, always on the brink of having everything blow up in his face. He’s dancing as fast as he can, but you can see that he’s starting to flag.

So the question isn’t what Donald Trump wants out of this summit. He will tell us afterwards that it is a great success, because as long as he’s on TV meeting with Vladimir Putin, it’s yuge. The question is what Putin wants out of this summit. He’s giving Trump his extravaganza, and he will certainly expect something in return.

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