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Trump, Putin Set to Meet in Helsinki 07/16 06:13

Trump, Putin Set to Meet in Helsinki   07/16 06:13

   President Donald Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election 
meddling or the country's annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia 
relations hours before a summit with Vladimir Putin that played out against a 
backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation 
and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.

   HELSINKI (AP) -- President Donald Trump blamed the United States, and not 
Russian election meddling or the country's annexation of Crimea, for a 
low-point in U.S.-Russia relations hours before a summit with Vladimir Putin 
that played out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in 
the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.

   "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse," Trump tweeted from 
Helsinki Monday morning, blaming "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity 
and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"

   Monday's meeting, which was being closely watched by rattled world capitals, 
was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the 
U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused 
of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump's presidential 
campaign. Undeterred, the American president was set to go face-to-face with 
Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.

   Trump, who has been trying to lower expectations about what the meeting will 
achieve, told reporters during a breakfast Monday morning with Finland's 
president that he thought the summit would go "fine."

   The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and 
publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that 
prompting a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a witch 
hunt.

   In his tweets, Trump continued to undermine the investigation, and blamed 
his predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to stop Russia's efforts to sway the 
2016 election in Trump's favor. He claimed Obama "was informed by the FBI about 
Russian Meddling, he said it couldn't happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING 
about it."

   The Obama administration did, in fact, take action, including confronting 
Putin in person as well as expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats the 
U.S. said were actually intelligence operatives and imposing new sanctions.

   While Trump was eager for a made-for-TV moment that will dominate headlines 
like his sit-down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month, the 
Kremlin's primary mission was simply to have the summit happen. Putin hopes the 
meeting, mere hours after he presided over the World Cup finals, will help him 
forge good personal ties with Trump and focus on areas where Moscow and 
Washington may be able to find common ground, such as Syria.

   The two leaders first meet one-on-one in the Finnish presidential palace's 
opulent Gothic Hall, then continue their discussions with an expanded group of 
aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor's throne room. 
The leaders will then take questions at a press conference before going their 
separate ways.

   Putin will likely not be shooting for official recognition of Russia's 2014 
annexation of Crimea or easing of the crippling U.S. sanctions, aware that the 
U.S. Congress would never allow such action. But he would welcome a symbolic 
end to Western protests over Crimea and Moscow's attempts to destabilize 
elections and traditional Western alliances and norms.

   Trump unleashed his own attacks on those very institutions before arriving 
in Finland.

   In an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, Trump described the 
European Union, a bloc of nations that includes many of America's closest 
allies, as a "foe."

   That attack on the alliance came on the heels of Trump's jarring appearance 
at a NATO summit in Brussels, where he harshly criticized traditional allies 
over "delinquent" defense spending only to later confirm his commitment to the 
military alliance that has long been a bulwark against Russian aggression.

   "NATO is now strong & rich!" Trump wrote in a celebratory tweet Monday 
morning. During his breakfast, he said NATO had "never been more together" and 
said the summit had been "a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned 
out to be love."

   Ahead of his sit-down with with Putin, who has cracked down on the free 
press, Trump has continued to unleash a series of attacks on the media, 
including as Air Force One descended into Helsinki.

   "Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the 
great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by 
Russia over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn't good enough - 
that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!" Trump tweeted. "Much 
of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how 
to do is resist and obstruct!"

   "Russia has done nothing to deserve us meeting them in this way," said Nina 
Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute who 
specializes in Russia, Ukraine and disinformation. For Putin, she added, "not 
only is this a P.R. coup no matter what happens, Trump could say nothing and it 
would help to legitimize his regime."

   Hovering over Helsinki is the specter of the 2016 election interference and 
ongoing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion 
between Trump campaign officials and Russia.

   Trump said in Britain last week --- another chaotic stop on his European 
tour --- that he would raise the issue of election meddling with Putin even as 
he played down its impact.

   "I don't think you'll have any 'Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,'" said 
Trump, invoking a television detective. "There won't be a Perry Mason here, I 
don't think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely 
firmly ask the question."

   Trump also said in the CBS interview that he had given no thought to asking 
Putin to extradite the dozen Russian military intelligence officers indicted 
this past week in on charges related to the hacking of Democratic targets.

   But after being asked about that by his interviewer, Trump said "certainly 
I'll be asking about it" although extradition is highly unlikely. The U.S. 
doesn't have an extradition treaty with Moscow and can't force the Russians to 
hand over citizens. Russia's constitution also prohibits turning over citizens 
to foreign governments.

   Putin is likely to strongly reaffirm his denial of any meddling and cast the 
U.S. charges as unfounded.

   The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected last week's indictment as part of a 
"shameful comedy" staged by those in the U.S. who try to prevent the 
normalization of Russia-U.S. ties, arguing that it doesn't contain evidence to 
back the accusations.

   On Syria, a possible deal could see Moscow helping mediate the withdrawal of 
Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies from the areas alongside Syria's 
border with Israel --- a diplomatic coup that would reflect Russia's carefully 
cultivated ties with both Israel and Iran.

   While both Putin and Trump spoke about the need to discuss arms control 
issues, they are unlikely to make any quick deals. They may underline the 
importance of continuing the discussions, setting the stage for discussions on 
expert level.


(KA)