What do you say to Vladimir Putin?
That depends. Are you Donald Trump?
If not, you’d surely want to confront the Russian strongman on his illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, his cynical support of the brutal Syrian regime and, especially, his campaign to alter the results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. All are examples of abusive behavior by America’s enemy number one.
But when Donald has his first-ever sit-down with Vladimir on Friday at the G-20 summit in Munich? You’d better not count on any of that tough stuff coming up.
Our president, quick to body slam anyone who displeases him, turns into Mister Softee whenever Moscow is mentioned. Since last fall, he’s had big trouble admitting that Russia hacked our election – first denying it happened, then dismissing U.S. intelligence reports, then blaming the Chinese and or maybe “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” When two of Putin’s closet Sergeys, Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov, dropped by the White House in May, all Trump could complain about was the “real nut job” he’d just fired as FBI director for investigating the Russian hack.
Why would Trump end the Russian coddling on Friday afternoon? He won’t.
We just learned yesterday that the face-to-face in Munich will be an “official bilateral meeting,” not an “informal pull-aside.”
It’s hard to know how much of this Trump fully grasps, but such arcane distinctions actually matter in the world of international diplomacy. For almost two years, the Russians have been seeking a full-fledged, president-to-president sit-down. Barack Obama, who wasn’t so cozy with Putin, demanded real concessions in exchange, perhaps a shift in Syria or a pullback in the Ukraine. When Putin didn’t deliver, no formal meeting was held.
Well, those days are clearly done.
Now, Putin’s getting his official meeting, and it didn’t cost him a thing. What will the two men say on Friday? It’s likely Putin will ask for the return of the Russian spy nests in Maryland and Long Island that Obama ordered seized after the U.S. election. Trump might even gently mention Ukraine and Syria.
What’s almost impossible to imagine is this: Trump grilling his buddy Putin on how the Russians helped to pick the current U.S. president.
Metro columnist Ellis Henican is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and frequent commentator on CNN and other TV networks. Follow him on Twitter @henican.