WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to Russia on Thursday described President Donald Trump's one-on-one meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin in Helsinki later this month as an accomplishment "in itself."
Briefing reporters ahead of the trip, Ambassador Jon Huntsman was asked what the president hoped to achieve by meeting yet again with the leader of a country U.S. intelligence officials have concluded undermined U.S. democracy by meddling in the 2016 election to help Trump win, among a long list of hostile actions.
"You know, I think the fact that we're having a summit at this level, at this time in history, is a deliverable in itself," said Huntsman, adding that he "wouldn't underplay at all the importance of actually sitting down for the first time in a meeting-summit environment and discussing the issues that really matter most."
The meeting comes on the heels of the president's summit last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a meeting that critics fear legitimized one of the world's most hostile actors, while winning few concessions. The U.S. agreed to end joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for Kim's broad commitment to "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, but there are reports that North Korea is continuing to expand facilities related to its nuclear and missile programs nonetheless.
Trump's trip will begin Tuesday in Brussels, where he'll participate in the NATO summit, before traveling to the United Kingdom for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He's expected to travel to Helsinki on July 15th and hold a one-on-one meeting with Putin, followed by a larger meeting with aides and a working lunch the next day.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. representative to NATO, said the major theme of the NATO summit would be the trans-Atlantic alliance's "strength and unity," despite repeated criticisms by Trump of alliance members who have yet to meet a commitment to boost their defense spending.
"Everyone in our alliance has the same goal, and that is a strong deterrent; an alliance that is unified that can face any threats that any one of our 29 members might face," she said, listing "Russia and the malign activities of Russia, the efforts of Russia to divide our Democratic nations" and INF treaty violations as among those threats.
Trump singled out NATO member Germany for special criticism during a campaign rally Thursday in Montana.
"Germany, which is the biggest country of the EU, European Union, Germany pays 1 percent, 1 percent," Trump said. He referred to Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying: "And I said, 'You know, Angela, I can't guarantee it, but we're protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us 'cause I don't know how much protection we get by protecting you."
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the election and has dismissed the investigation into potential collusion with members of his campaign as a "witch hunt" intended to delegitimize he presidency.
Just last week, he trumpeted a Putin talking point, tweeting: "Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!"
Huntsman said Trump would address the election interference in his conversations with Putin, along with a range of other national security issues, including Russia's annexation of Crimea and its efforts in Syria.
"The president will continue to hold Russia accountable for its malign activities," he said, describing the meeting as the first opportunity for an extended conversation about the topic, despite the fact that the two men have met multiple times and spoken at length on the sidelines of various summits, including a meeting that lasted more than two hours in Hamburg, Germany.
He said conversations "on election meddling, on Ukraine, on Syria" have happened "through diplomatic channels, but there hasn't been a full airing of the issues in our bilateral relationship that really matter most to global stability. And that will all be possible during this meeting format."
He added that Trump hopes the meeting "can help reduce tensions and lead to constructive engagement that improves peace and security around the world because you can't solve problems if you're not talking about them," but said: "the ball really is in Russia's court."
In Montana, Trump scoffed at news reports questioning his preparedness for the Putin meeting, saying: "Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I've been preparing for this stuff my whole life." Trump added that "I might even end up having a good relationship" with the Russian leader.