The Putin Summit, NATO, and EU: President Trump and American Alliances

On Monday, July 16, President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. This meeting came just days after a summit with NATO allies in Brussels and a visit to the UK for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. In this Q&A, international law expert Allen Weiner discusses the outcomes of the Russian Summit and the controversial statements by President Trump after each meeting that have raised questions about his diplomatic style and leadership.

What were the key outcomes of the president’s Helsinki summit?

We do not, of course, know the details of what Presidents Trump and Putin discussed behind closed doors. Nevertheless, they do not seem to have reached any concrete agreements; had any such agreements been concluded, both leaders would have been keen to publicly showcase the “deliverables” that emerged from the meeting. The main outcome is that the U.S. and Russia have agreed to resume discussing important issues in their relationship – nuclear weapons, Syria, and counter-terrorism – with the blessing of each side’s head of state. In short, it appears that the main accomplishment of the summit was agreement on an agenda of issues the parties will work on going forward.

Did the private meeting break with protocol? Does it matter?

No, one-on-one meetings between heads of state without advisers present are rare, but not unprecedented.

At the post-summit news conference, President Trump very publicly discounted the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. He instead said that President Putin had denied such involvement and called Mueller’s investigation a witch-hunt and ridiculous. Is it significant that the U.S. president took this position?

This is extremely distressing. It was not a very good week for the republic. U.S. intelligence agencies have consistently advised President Trump that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election – a position President Trump says he accepts. To simultaneously accept President Putin’s denial of Russia’s illegal intervention – to treat this as an issue on which we will simply have to agree to disagree – represents a major capitulation on the part of the United States. In my mind, it signals clearly to the Russians that there will be no consequences for this kind of interference, which undermines our effort to deter them from intervening in future elections.

On the question of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, President Trump appears to have a blind spot he simply cannot overcome. Any expression of concern about Russian interference seems, in President Trump’s mind, to delegitimize his electoral victory, and consequently his presidency. That’s why such a large segment of President’s Trump’s remarks during the question and answer period in Helsinki focused not on Russia’s meddling, but on the questions of whether his campaign colluded with Russia or whether Russia’s meddling affected the outcome of the election. President Trump’s repeated criticism of the investigation into Russian electoral interference was astonishingly defensive. It suggests one of two possibilities. Either the Trump campaign did collude with the Russians to perpetrate electoral fraud, in which case President Trump has committed treason, or it did not, in which case the President is placing his personal interest in countering challenges to the legitimacy of the election over the integrity of American democracy. Either way, it’s a breathtaking abuse of the office of the president.

President Trump issued a clarification some 36 hours later saying that he “misspoke” and that he does believe the assessment of his national security staff. Will that calm Americans and our allies around the world?

Anybody who watched the press conference in Helsinki, and heard the full context in which President Trump stated that he “didn’t see any reason why it would be Russia” that interfered in the election, would be hard pressed to believe that he misspoke. Even during his clarification, just seconds after averring that he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian meddling in the 2016 election took place, President Trump added, “It could be other people, also.” Wednesday’s statement by the President won’t change the minds of those who were outraged by what they saw as appeasement of Putin in Helsinki. What it might do, however, is relieve pressure on members of the Republican Party who felt they couldn’t ignore or rationalize the President’s conduct in Helsinki. President Trump’s efforts to walk back his Helsinki statements, even if implausible, could give congressional Republicans cover to mute their criticism of him.

President Trump also rattled our allies the week before at both the NATO meeting, when he pressed members to contribute more and called the alliance “a bad deal for America,” when he then called the EU “a global foe,” and again when he seemed to endorse Boris Johnson as a good choice for British Prime Minister.  Can these statements by a U.S. president possibly help the United States?

No, President Trump’s performance last week in Europe did not help the United States or strengthen our relationships with our allies. As he did at last month’s G-7 meeting, President Trump continues to go out of his way to publicly berate and undermine our allies.

He stated, at Monday’s Helsinki press conference, that despite the feverish press coverage of his criticisms of our NATO allies and British Prime Minister May, his meetings in Brussels and in London went very well. Perhaps. The bottom line, though, is that President Trump continues to take public positions that denigrate our allies and undermine the value of our relationships with them. This puts great pressure on democratically elected leaders abroad to distance themselves from the United States. Foreign policy experts in foreign capitals – and not just politicians who have an understandable need to stand up for their countries in the face of what feels like transnational bullying – have begun to express concern that President Trump’s behavior is causing irreparable harm to our transatlantic alliances.

Can the president’s public statements be reined in—or challenged—by Congress?

There’s little the Congress can do to prevent President Trump from publicly sowing doubt about the findings of the intelligence community regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, or from making statements that damage our relationships with our allies. Congressional leaders could, of course, publicly criticize President Trump’s actions and statements with a view towards weakening him politically. But it is unlikely that Republican members of Congress will want to politically wound their party’s standard-bearer with midterm elections approaching. As a legislative matter, there has been discussion about passing legislation that would constrain President Trump’s ability to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It is possible that last week’s events and the press conference on Monday might create some momentum for such legislation. Congress’s ultimate check, of course, would be to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Trump. But the current Congress has no inclination to pursue that option.

Allen S. Weiner is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Director, Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law at Stanford Law School.