Trump canceling Putin meeting is diplomatic slap on the wrist

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the des...

Posted: Nov 30, 2018 8:19 AM
Updated: Nov 30, 2018 8:19 AM

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Donald Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.

This week, I offer a special briefing in advance of Trump's participation at the G20 summit in Argentina.

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If you give a mouse a cookie

From Russian President Vladimir Putin's perspective, the Michael Cohen bombshell exposing his lies about your alleged Russian business dealings could not have come at a better time.

Putin probably thinks that you're entering the G20 worried about your exposure to the Special Counsel. He may even think he has leverage over you because he knows the truth about what may actually have happened between Russia and members of your campaign. Despite your denial of wrongdoing, we assess that he thinks he knows all the dirty little secrets about who he worked with and when.

While he may have been itching for a repeat of your meeting in Helsinki -- it could have been a chance for him to score points at home when his domestic approval ratings are falling -- you citing Ukraine as the reason for canceling your meeting doesn't hold a lot of water. While you are canceling a meeting with him for violating Ukraine's sovereignty, you went ahead with meeting him in Helsinki despite his violation of US sovereignty via election interference.

Canceling (or postponing) the meeting is also signaling to Putin that you'll give him a relatively free pass on Ukraine. This is a diplomatic slap on the wrist for Putin. He knows that past presidents haven't viewed bilateral meetings as simple photo-ops -- but as opportunities to deliver tough messages. In a one-on-one meeting, you could have delivered a clear message about the actual costs for his misbehavior -- including more sanctions and/or NATO enhancements.

Even without a meeting, expect Putin and his team to use their digital army and public statements to continue cooking up their favorite Russian recipe -- scapegoating imaginary political forces for everything Russia is actually doing wrong. He said that the recent clash with Ukraine was a political stunt by Ukrainian President Poreshenko. And because he knows that your Twitter feed and public remarks are often filled with ire, he'll likely rely on his favorite tactic of blaming US political forces, rather than himself, for any deterioration in the bilateral relationship.

His goal is probably to divert your attention from punitive measures for his ongoing aggression and to refocus you on your usual suspects -- Democrats, Robert Mueller and your perceived "unfair" treatment by other countries. But, if you give Putin any wiggle room, he'll just continue to push (with all kinds of force) for more.

No points for just showing up

G20 leaders may view your arrival in Argentina as a huge cost to the summit. Why? Because they fear a repeat of your previous summit performances -- such as when you insulted world leaders at a gathering of NATO or refused to sign the G7's communique in Ottawa.

They also probably expect you to criticize what the G20 itself is premised on: multilateralism and the idea that coordinating with other major economies on international stability is of net benefit to each member.

Your threats that the United States would leave multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization and "go its own way" if NATO allies didn't pay up -- plus your withdrawal from multilateral efforts like the Iran deal, Paris climate accord, Trans-Pacific Partnership and the United Nations Human Rights Council -- have sent a clear message to your peers that you aren't a big fan of multilateralism, unless it suits your agenda.

They probably believe that it's your way or the highway, particularly after you criticized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the host of this year's G7 summit, right after you left the summit.

Because of this background, foreign intelligence services might reasonably assess that you do not view the G20's focus on globalization and interconnectedness as an effective tool for international economic cooperation. They are expecting you to make unilateral statements about what America wants and what America needs -- rather than what's good for international stability.

While much attention will be focused on your bilateral engagements, a decision to insult the body of the G20, its host or its members could stoke more concerns about US isolationism.

Making a murderer

After you broke with our allies and issued a unilateral statement proclaiming that, despite the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States should continue doing business with Saudi Arabia, your posture toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be the focus of much discussion at the G20. Any moves you make to embrace him further -- literally and figuratively -- will be perceived as emboldening him to murder again (even if MBS still denies any involvement).

Any public display of affection you show for MBS -- even if he offers you a carrot, like agreeing not to advocate further on oil production cuts -- may be interpreted as standing with Saudi Arabia and against our other allies, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (whom you are scheduled to see) and European countries who have pledged to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, any coordinated measures you announce to punish Saudi Arabia -- even if not aimed at MBS himself -- could show a renewed interest in strengthening your (non-Saudi) alliances.

You should be aware that statements you make in Argentina criticizing recent congressional moves against the Kingdom will be viewed as further evidence that your real enemies list is made up of whomever doesn't vote your way -- and not perpetrators of actual crimes.

Not a one-trick pony

Chinese President Xi Jinping probably knows that you have two goals in mind for your meeting with him this weekend: trying to maintain the image of your close personal relationship with him, while concurrently hammering China to at least publicly profess (like they did after your first meeting last year) that they'll be more flexible on trade issues so that you can declare even a temporary victory.

Xi has witnessed your tactics. He has seen you agree to a tariff cease-fire with the EU only to restart berating it again. And even if you agree to a US-China trade war moratorium temporarily, he probably thinks that more tariffs are a foregone conclusion, especially because of your team's recent findings of ongoing, egregious Chinese behavior.

While you highlight your leverage over China's economy, we want to flag that the Chinese Communist Party is not a one-trick pony. Your (sometimes) friend Xi is able to strike back with more than tariffs. Harassment of US businesses could increase along with harassment of US interests in the diplomatic and security space. China has ramped up its aggression against our ally Taiwan, and with a more pro-China party winning last week's Taiwanese election, China could increase efforts to hurt Taiwan's independence while concurrently upping its bullying tactics in the South China Sea and against US military assets.

Xi also knows how much you have invested in denuclearization talks with Kim Jong Un and, despite a lack of progress on that front, there is reporting that he may be planning a visit to North Korea soon .

While China has pledged to uphold relevant UN sanctions against Kim, for now, as North Korea's biggest trading partner, Xi could choose to weaken enforcement of these sanctions, if he feels like you're treating him unfairly on trade.

If you're not playing by the rules, it's safe to assume that neither will he. You should expect Xi to have coordinated with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in urging you to relax sanctions on North Korea. But this doesn't mean that China isn't considering covertly lifting the maximum pressure campaign for any number of reasons, including their growing dissatisfaction with you.

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