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How Trump’s turbulent Europe trip affects his Putin meeting

What does President Trump's visit to the United Kingdom mean for the transatlantic relationship and his meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin? Former ambassador to NATO Nick Burns tells John Yang that if the president is going to retain political support, the respect of our allies, and even the respect of Putin, Trump will have to be tougher on the Russian leader.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We take a closer look now at what the president's U.K. visit means for the transatlantic relationship, and his meeting on Monday with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

    John Yang has that.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Judy, for perspective on that, here's longtime U.S. diplomat Nick Burns. He's a former ambassador to NATO and a former undersecretary of state for political affairs.

    Mr. Burns, welcome.

    This — Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump at the White House after inauguration. This trip to London is something, by all accounts, he really wanted to happen.

    Now that it has happened, and now that this is what he did on his first — on this visit, what do you make of this?

  • NICHOLAS BURNs:

    Well, John, it's hard to think of a more chaotic and disputatious visit by an American president both to London, to Britain, our great ally, as well as to NATO, as the president has had the last couple of days, because, before he met Theresa May, he started a fight with Angela Merkel, he threatened to leave the NATO alliance at one point during the NATO meeting.

    He certainly has tried to undermine the European Union. Then this explosive interview in The Sun newspaper, the tabloid newspaper. Theresa May is on a knife's edge right now. As your report showed, she's trying to put a Brexit proposal forward that might incite a rebellion in the Conservative Party.

    The president came out against it. He came out against her strategy. He came out in support of her greatest foe, Boris Johnson. And this was a direct attack on the prime minister. And despite what the president said in his press conference today, trying to roll back his statements, this was the real Donald Trump in that Sun interview.

  • JOHN YANG:

    He said that — as you say, he praised Boris Johnson. He said Boris Johnson would be a great prime minister.

    The strongest he went on Mrs. May is that he said that she's a fine woman, she's a good woman.

    What has he done to her political — political livelihood or her political chances domestically in Britain?

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    Well, the president's ideological kindred in U.K. politics would be the Conservatives, who are in favor of a very tough, hard Brexit, as they call it, a complete separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

    The prime minister's view is that it has to be a softer Brexit, meaning some ties have to remain in order to ensure the success of the British economy.

    The president directly emboldened her strongest critics. Imagine if Theresa May came to the White House, into the Rose Garden, and said publicly, with the president standing behind, beside her, I think that Jeff Flake or Bob Corker or John Kasich would make a very good president of the United States. Our president would be furious.

    That's what Donald Trump did to her twice, not only in the Sun interview, but also in this morning's press conference. And so the president has directly intervened in British politics in the most unhelpful way.

    He's done the same thing with the German chancellor, two female leaders, which has the attention of a lot of people in Europe, who think that he does pick on female leaders. And these are the two closest friends that the United States has in the world, Germany and the United Kingdom.

  • JOHN YANG:

    You talked about what he did in Brussels, what he has done now in London, next stop, Helsinki, where he is going to meet Vladimir Putin, and then today's indictment from the Justice Department, the strongest evidence yet of direct Russian government trying to meddle in the U.S. election.

    What does this do to this meeting?

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    Oh, it makes it absolutely necessary — if there is going to be a meeting, Donald Trump cannot just ask the question. That's what he said he would do today. He said, I will ask President Putin if he intervened. He has to let President Putin know that a federal grand jury indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officials today. The grand jury said there's a criminal conspiracy to undermine our election.

    The president has to make the case to Putin that this cannot happen again, that the United States will maintain or increase its economic sanctions against Russia, and encourage others to do that. He has to defend us.

    His primary job as commander in chief is to defend this country. There's been an attack on our electoral system by our strongest adversary. And so, if he blithely goes in — and that was his body language and the words today — oh, I will just ask him, but I don't expect a good answer.

    He has to be forceful and strong, and not weak, but he has been very weak in front of President Putin the several times that they have met in the last 18 months.

  • JOHN YANG:

    And he said over and over again that he wants to have a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. Can he do that and also do what you say he should do, is defend the United States?

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    You know, the point of diplomacy is not to have good relations. The point of diplomacy to get our way internationally and to defend our country.

    So, in addition to the Russian interference in our election, there's the Russian U.K. nerve agent attack. A British woman lost her life last week because of the attack.

    There's the fact that Russia crossed the brightest red line in international law by invading and occupying and annexing Crimea. There are U.S. sanctions on Russian imposed by the Congress, by the way, over the president's objections, on Russia for these actions.

    And the president, I think, has to understand that, if he's going to retain political support in the country and the respect of our allies, and I think even the respect of Putin, he has to be tougher than Putin than he says he wants to be.

    It is not enough to say that we just want to get along with a person who's trying to undermine our country. We have to defeat that person, block that person, and do everything we can to protect our own country.

    That's what Ronald Reagan would have done. That's what any American president before Donald Trump would have done.

  • JOHN YANG:

    Former Ambassador Nick Burns, thank you very much.

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    Thank you, John.

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