The alarm over President Donald Trump’s second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit are, in one way, overheated. Staying engaged with Russia and its leader, including through a spontaneous pull-aside at a closed dinner for world leaders, is not in itself a fault: At best, it might help alleviate mistrust and avoid miscalculation at a time of high tension.
While it is possible to object to Trump’s impulsive style and tendency to bypass established channels, the problem is not so much that he sought out Putin for an informal chat. Rather, it is the deeply troubling and unresolved questions about his relationship with Russia, which mean that any such contact raises serious — and understandable — concerns.
“Engagement” is not a dirty word. Even in the worst days of the Cold War, in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis and the 1983 war scare, the United States remained in close communication with the Soviet Union. A back channel often proved vital. During the tense days of autumn 1983, the National Security Council specialist on Soviet affairs, Jack Matlock, met quietly in a cafeteria opposite the Old Executive Office Building with a Soviet journalist he had known, who revealed the dire situation in Moscow, including Soviet leaders’ deepening uncertainty about possible war with the U.S. This was important information.
Talk isn’t bad; what’s key is the nature of the talk. To carefully calibrate messages to world leaders, presidents usually rely on an elaborate bureaucratic machine, including the interagency process and the National Security Council staff. Trump’s dinner chat showed once again his proclivity to act alone, and he undoubtedly created headaches. With no U.S. note-taker or interpreter, the U.S. national security structure was left without a record of the exchange, except for Trump’s memory. Putin will have a better record.
But the deeper problem is the epidemic of mistrust Trump has created about his ties to Russia, which sensationalizes contacts that might otherwise be unremarkable.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST