One smart thing Trump could do this fall to make voters forget all of this Russia business before the midterms is, errrrrrrrrrrrrr, invite Putin to the White House shortly before the vote. Dan Coats, ostensibly the man in charge of U.S. intelligence, got the news live on the air while being interviewed in Aspen today and seemed as surprised as any of us are:
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed on stage at Aspen Security Forum that the Trump administration has invited Vladimir Putin to the White House.
— ABC News (@ABC) July 19, 2018
Very confidence-building, baby. But yes, this is really happening: After the Humiliation in Helsinki, Trump’s decided that not only does he want another photo op with Putin, he wants to hand him the honor of a White House visit.
In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.
— Kayleigh McEnany 45 Archived (@PressSec45) July 19, 2018
In theory that could work. Trump welcomes him to the capital, does the grip-and-grin, then impresses everyone with a show of support for U.S. intelligence by stressing to Putin’s face that he blames him for the 2016 interference and warning him not to do anything before the midterms. (Too late, according to BuzzFeed.) In practice, though? C’mon, we’ve all had crushes. It’s impossible to be chill when the apple of your eye is standing right there next to you. It’s destined to be another back-slapping session. All it’ll take to cement the disastrous optics of that meeting is Mueller releasing his report on obstruction shortly before or after and accusing Trump of a crime. If you thought it was awkward for Russian intelligence agents to be indicted a few days before the summit last week, imagine Trump getting accused of obstruction right before a White House sitdown with Putin.
The tsar allegedly floated an interesting idea to him during their private chat in Finland:
Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday…
Putin’s proposal will alarm Ukrainian officials after Trump last week appeared to leave open the possibility of recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which triggered the crisis that led to fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukraine has offered the areas autonomy under its rule and backs the deployment of international peacekeepers in the region…
Leaders of so-called rebel republics in Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums in May 2014 that declared independence. The votes were rejected as illegal by the U.S. and the European Union, while Ukraine called them a “farce.” Russia said at the time that it “respects” the votes, which showed as much as 96 percent support for breaking away from Ukraine.
Very clever. Between this and the proposal about letting U.S. intelligence question the 12 Russian agents indicted by Mueller if Russia can question Mike McFaul, it’s increasingly clear that Putin’s goal at the summit was to raise proposals which he knew would appeal to Trump but would horrify the American diplomatic and intelligence ranks. He chose to sow division, as usual, by playing on the ideological fault lines between the strongman president and his anti-strongman staff. A U.S. natsec official would vomit at the idea of ransoming McFaul to Russian fascists but Putin knew that targeting one of Obama’s own ambassadors would play into Trump’s own anti-Obama inclinations. Same with the idea of a separatist referendum in Ukraine. Cementing a precedent in which Russia can invade a neighbor’s sovereign territory and then get the locals to “agree” under threat to join the Russian Federation “voluntarily” would be a disaster, like blessing the Anschluss as democratically legitimate. (Putin likes German precedents in his territory grabs. One of his arguments for seizing Crimea was that there are many ethnic Russians there, a Russian Sudetenland.) It would also require trusting Russian election administrators to count the votes fairly, just in case the threat of being shot by Moscow-backed separatists wasn’t enough to get the locals to vote the right way. It’s farcical. Okay the process in Ukraine and maybe Putin might consider trying it out in a few years in, er, Montenegro.
But Trump would probably dig it. He admires “strength” and what could be stronger than taking your weaker neighbor’s land? If a patina of democracy can be lent to it via a referendum, so much the better. (He’s mentioned before when asked about Putin’s seizure of Crimea that, from what he understands, Crimeans prefer to be part of Russia.) Putin probably explained it to him in terms of Iraq: If the United States could invade there and let Iraqis choose their own government, surely eastern Ukrainians deserve the right to choose whether to be swallowed by Russia. Now Bolton and Pompeo, who doubtless just got done explaining why we can’t trade Mike McFaul, are going to have to explain why this won’t work either.
I’ll leave you with Coats — again, the man atop the U.S. intelligence pyramid — admitting that he still has not a clue about what promises were made or ideas raised between the president and the head of Russia when they were face to face last week. Exit quotation: “Sources close to Trump tell Axios that they’re already speculating about whether Trump ends up firing Coats.”
Director of Nat'l Intelligence Coats: "I don't know what happened in that meeting."@mitchellreports: "Is there a risk that Vladimir Putin could've recorded it?"
DNI Coats: "That risk is always there." pic.twitter.com/dReGGOXBut
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 19, 2018