The truth is that we do not know.
It did not play well in the press, nor would anyone have expected it to play well in the press. Indeed, if anything, it strengthened the impression that Trump is in Putin’s pocket. Even Trump probably understood that would happen. So he tried to do the meeting without US press coverage. And he screwed that up by allowing a Russian cameraman into the room.
But why do it at all? And why did he do it at this particular moment? There must have been a reason. Here is my best guess.
Trump knows that he is in political trouble. He fired Jim Comey — a desperate move — on May 9. The Russians invaded the oval office just a few hours later on May 10.
I think there is a connection. I do not think that Trump would have agreed to the meeting if he didn’t believe he could get something useful out of it. Some sort of good news. A deal on Syria? Ukraine? Announcing a deal just now would have helped shift the story and justify Trump’s argument that the Russians are not such bad guys. You just have to know how to deal with them. He may also have reasoned that Putin would try to help him by offering something.
Errr … things did not work out that way. Certainly, Putin sent Lavrov into the meeting. Indeed, according to Trump, the meeting was Putin’s idea. Why? Whatever the reason, it was not to do a deal at that moment. And that is bad news for Trump – if Putin had wanted to help Trump he would have offered some sort of deal. He did not. Not only that, the Russians prominently leaked photos of the meeting that made Trump look stupid. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Putin thumbed his nose at Trump.
So why would Putin do that? Putin may have come to the conclusion that his intervention into the US election has backfired. It got Trump elected but this has not significantly changed US policy. Moreover, Putin is caught out as a menace. When he tried the same tactic in the French presidential election, he was humiliated. Putin may have concluded that he can not destroy NATO by hacking elections. At least not in the current political climate. So Trump, especially now that he is politically weakened, is not all that useful.
Or Putin might be thinking that he can squeeze Trump further before doing a deal. I think that this would be a strategic mistake. A lopsided deal proposed by a president sinking in the political mire would not likely pass the senate. And it would harden attitudes against Russia even more than they are hardened now.
Any other possibilities? Putin might just want to enjoy seeing Trump squirm. He may also be calculating that humiliating Trump helps to further diminish American prestige around the world.
And of course, we now know that Trump leaked highly classified information that the US got from its partner Israel to the Russians in that meeting. This story appeared in the Washington Post from anonymous sources. Did the Russians leak this too? Who knows. The fact is that it was leaked from someone in the room. And the fact is that leaking the story further damaged Trump politically. Again, Trump is caught out as foolish and perhaps even buffoonish.
Errr … and one more thing. So much for Trump’s self-advertised brilliant negotiating skills. From a negotiator’s perspective, this episode was a disaster. It is one more bit of evidence that Trump the brilliant deal maker is a myth.
Keep this in mind. Trump is desperate for something to distract the press from the various investigations. But he is dealing from weakness. And so, we should be wary of any “blockbuster” news coming out of the White House just now.
quick follow up – More recent reporting confirms that Trump held the Russia meeting to attempt some sort of negotiation.
Another government official who spoke to the Times said Trump was using a “negotiating tactic” with Lavrov when he explained the “pressure” he faced (from Jim Comey).
The Times wrote: “The idea, the official suggested, was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of Mr. Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Mr. Trump.”
This might be called the “beached whale” tactic and it is pretty pathetic. Trump would be the beached whale here. Why beached whale? If you are close by, you need to get the whale back to sea before it starts to stink.