ROBERT COSTA: Face to face with Vladimir Putin and America’s allies. President Trump engages his Russian counterpart, reaches a ceasefire deal in Syria, and delivers a warning to the West. I’m Robert Costa. We examine the Trump administration’s disruptive turn on the world stage, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?
MR. COSTA: In Europe, President Trump defiantly defends the West and sends a pointed message to Moscow.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.
MR. COSTA: But ahead of his meeting with Vladimir Putin, the president remained skeptical about Russia’s election meddling.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.
MR. COSTA: Later, Putin denied the charges, and Mr. Trump said he’s looking for a way to move forward. But what does that mean?
Meanwhile, world leaders gather to discuss global issues, including terrorism and what to do about North Korea’s latest missile launch.
We explore how Trump’s “America first” agenda is being received with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Yeganeh Torbati of Reuters, Nancy Youssef of Buzzfeed News, and Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. President Trump opened his first meeting with Vladimir Putin by pressing the Russian president about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. The session at the G-20 summit lasted more than two hours. Afterward, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who participated in the huddle, told reporters that Putin denied trying to influence the election. Tillerson went on to say that President Trump wanted to talk about how the two nations could go forward rather than spending time on disagreements over meddling. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a different take. He told reporters that Trump accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia did not intervene in the election. A lot of jockeying going on, but Peter, it seems like this exchange today – this lengthy exchange – was perhaps a thaw.
PETER BAKER: Well, you know, if you were going to be a fly on the wall and anywhere in the world, you would have wanted to be in Hamburg, Germany today in that meeting because the most anticipated meeting, obviously, so far of President Trump’s administration, and one, as you say, where we’re getting some contrary versions of what actually happened in the room. And you did see, I think, good body chemistry. That’s what people said afterwards. Tillerson said that. Lavrov said that. The two presidents obviously do share a certain outlook on the world, a certain kind of masculine approach to politics – testosterone-filled, some people might say. But the differences in the outlooks – the differences in the readouts from Secretary Tillerson and Minister Lavrov were important. This idea that President Trump raised the issue, then accepted, perhaps, President Putin’s denial immediately stirred the hornet’s nest back here in Washington. Now, the White House says that’s not true, he did not accept President Putin’s denial. But on the other hand, as you showed in your intro, just earlier in the week, just one day earlier, he basically had cast doubt on this, so there’s every reason to believe that he’s still not convinced that Russia had something to do with the meddling of last year’s election.
YEGANEH TORBATI: And part of the reason that there’s not yet a lot of clarity, and may really not be, especially for those of us and those elsewhere who are really close observers of U.S.-Russia relations, is because that meeting was so small. You would have expected, perhaps, the U.S. national security advisor, the top U.S. national security official on – specifically on Russia, to perhaps be a part of that meeting, but it was really just the two leaders, the two foreign ministers, and a couple translators. And so we really have only those two takes to go on, and there’s not going to be a lot of readouts coming out from the National Security Council, for instance.
MR. COSTA: It’s a murky picture. And, Doyle, it’s so great to have you back here on Washington Week. But what are we supposed to make about the dueling accounts? Yes, there is – there’s different sides about what actually happened, but I think the big picture as well, perhaps, is President Trump did engage on the question of Russian meddling and pressed Russia on it. Is that a stride for President Trump? Is that a significant change, or not?
DOYLE MCMANUS: Well, that really depends on how these dueling accounts shake out. I think there’s a way to kind of find the sweet spot where they intersect, but let’s begin with this: President Trump had to bring this up in that meeting. Imagine what we would be talking about tonight if he hadn’t brought it up. Washington would be on fire. He’d be taking flak not just from Democrats, not just from his critics, but from at least half of his own party. So he had to bring it up.
But what’s also clear, from what both Lavrov said and Rex Tillerson said, is he had no appetite for going over the details of what happened in the 2016 election. What he wanted to talk about, they set up a working group to make sure that nobody did this every again. He wanted to talk about cyber warfare in Europe. He really didn’t want to talk about 2016. And that lack of appetite is very clear, and Rex Tillerson had to effectively admit that.
So what I think probably happened – if I had to put 20 bucks down, why is Lavrov technically correct? Because Putin pushed back, as he always does, said never happened, I didn’t do it, and I suspect there was no response, which to the Russians meant acceptance.
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it’s interesting because you pointed out that this went over two hours, and remember it was intended to be for less than an hour. And in a way what happened in that meeting is almost ancillary to the international community because Putin went in as a pariah who is standing up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and he came out – and potentially interfering in the elections – and came out of this as a more – a legitimized leader by virtue of the fact that the president of the United States sat down with him one on one for more than two hours.
MR. COSTA: And Tillerson said, Nancy, that we have to move forward. To be able to move forward, quote, we may need to simply have this “intractable disagreement at this point.” It seems like Tillerson’s underscoring that there may be no resolution to this Russia question.
MS. YOUSSEF: There may be no resolution, but you have a United States that still sees this as a divisive political issue, something that they worry about in the 2018 election and the 2020 election. And on top of that, one could argue that the – that the intelligence community – some in the intelligence communities have come back and said that it is resolved, there was interference, and that there isn’t a need to relitigate but rather look at the security measures that the United States has to be – has to put in place going forward. And so when Tillerson talks about going forward and moving forward, arguably that the United States – parts of the United States are looking at going forward in a very different way than he’s spelling out.
MR. BAKER: It is interesting because, in fact, basically President Trump is saying could have happened, I think it happened, but nobody could be sure. And his sort of ambivalence about this equates, almost – that’s what the Democrats are saying, anyway – the American intelligence agencies that have concluded this happened, and the Russian version of events, which is that it didn’t happen, and you heard Democrats here in Washington say this week – or Senator Schumer, in fact, said that’s a grave dereliction of duty to equate these two versions of event(s). And Rex Tillerson said it’s an intractable dispute; you know, in effect who knows, let’s just go ahead and forget about it.
But there were so many mixed messages out of this meeting, right? You had the agreement on what may be a short-lived ceasefire in part of Syria. You had this discussion about a cybersecurity working group. But then you had the president also say in Poland the day before that he wasn’t going to put up with Russian destabilization of Ukraine, and they announced the appointment today of a fairly well-known Russia hawk named Kurt Volker, who – former ambassador to NATO, who will be President Trump’s personal emissary to resolve the Ukraine dispute. And that would be cheerful to hawks like Senator McCain, who’s worked with Kurt Volker in the past, and others who think that President Trump hasn’t been hard enough on Russia.
MR. COSTA: Yeganeh, what do you make about this ceasefire agreement with regard to Syria? The administration is touting it that in this area of southwest Syria, beginning Sunday, that there’s going to be this limited ceasefire. Is that a significant foreign policy moment, or not?
MS. TORBATI: To some extent we sort of have to wait and see. Just in and of itself, though, this ceasefire is – and in many ways a repetition of a pattern that we saw during the last couple years of the Obama administration, even up until the last few months of the last administration. There have been Russian-backed ceasefires before, ones that the U.S. has been involved in negotiating and ones that Turkey has been sort of the other partner negotiating. And they fall apart – they have fallen apart, you know, basically because the Russians are either unwilling or unable to get their main client, Bashar al-Assad, who’s the leader of Syria, to refrain from breaking the ceasefire, from bombing civilians, from taking part in actions that violate those agreements.
And so the big question that we all have right now for the U.S. government, that says, you know, that they’ve reached the ceasefire in a small part of Syria, is what’s changed? Like, what – why is Russia now suddenly able – why do you think that they’re going to be able to guarantee that this goes forward? And, you know, we also learned today that certain major aspects of the ceasefire, including who’s actually going to be monitoring its enforcement, these really key questions have not yet been hashed out, and they’re going to be decided on in the coming days.
MS. YOUSSEF: And one of the key points that one looks at is in the situation in Aleppo because, remember, there was a ceasefire in place then. And during that siege, instead of an enforcement, Assad was allowed to go in and reclaim the city. And so when you talk to people about a ceasefire, it’s often met with a lot of pessimism because of that scenario where such a crippling attack was allowed to happen under a supposed ceasefire. It all comes down to, as Yeganeh said, who will enforce it? Will the Russians enforce –
MR. COSTA: And who’s going to deal with Assad?
MS. YOUSSEF: And it’s up the Russians to do it. Remember the Assad regime is not a signatory to this ceasefire. And so they become, the Russians, the enforcers of this. What incentive do they have to crack down on their client, if you will?
MR. MCMANUS: There are actually, to argue the opposite case a little bit, two small reasons to see a glimmer of hope for the process now. One is, as Secretary Tillerson said, the United States and its allies are about to take Raqqa. There’s about to be a practical problem. Who administers this territory and how do you keep the Russians and the Americans from colliding with each other? That’s a practical problem that the Russian and the American military have been solving – have been – have been addressing.
The other is that the Trump administration has drifted way away from the Obama administration insistence that Assad has to go. Assad can stay for a while. The Russians are much more comfortable with that. That said, I think my colleagues are right, Secretary Tillerson sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he said, gee, our objectives and the Russians’ objectives look awfully, awfully similar. How come we can’t work something out?
MR. COSTA: So we’ll all keep an eye on Syria, but, Peter, when you step back and you think about this exchange today between Putin and Trump, is this truly a reimagination of U.S.-Russia relations? Is this something that President Trump is actually taking the U.S. in an entirely different direction based on this conversation today and everything you’ve seen?
MR. BAKER: No. Each of the last three presidents has come into office determined to reset, to use President Obama’s phrase, the relationship with Russia. President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama. And each of them found that frustrating in different ways. President Putin has been frustrating to the last two presidents in particular, and I don’t think that he’s going to suddenly become our best friend just because Donald Trump once said as a candidate that he hoped he would be.
There are, however, areas where we have room for agreement. There are areas where we have shared interests. And that’s what this administration, I think, is going to try to focus on. There’s no grand bargain to be had at this point. Politics at home probably wouldn’t allow it. But there are areas where we can have a more constructive relationship. And the question is whether or not President Putin wants to make any kind of concessions that would allow that.
MR. COSTA: When you’re at the White House is there one person, do you think, that’s driving Trump, shaping Trump on policy with Russia?
MR. BAKER: On Russia? (Laughs.) I think it’s really Donald Trump who shapes his policy on Russia, because if you listen to other people in his administration – like Secretary Tillerson, like General McMaster, his national security advisor, like Fiona Hill, who is his top Russia advisor, you hear a lot more skepticism about Vladimir Putin, a lot more skepticism about Russia’s role in the Middle East and Europe. And you don’t hear that from the president himself. In fact, you hear sort of this conflict.
And what – we were talking about his speech in Warsaw. The difference between the scripted speech, where he did say some things that were pretty tough about Russia, and what he said hours later at a press conference when he didn’t have, you know, what his staff had put in front of him, that’s where you heard the contrast.
MR. COSTA: Let’s get to that speech, that G-20 speech that came – that really kicked off this entire week for President Trump. He was speaking to thousands of people in Poland in Warsaw, and there you saw the president being cheered, but there’s also a clash of protestors. And that theme was echoed in the speech. It was a clash of civilizations. And he warned that the West is being threatened by terrorism and extremism.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) There are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
MR. COSTA: It raises the question, how much is the president, who campaigned on “America first,” disrupting these traditional expectations often found at the global summit? It came to mind again and again, Doyle, as we listened to this speech.
MR. MCMANUS: Absolutely. And the speech was – look, the speech sounded a lot like President Trump’s dark inaugural address. American civilization is threatened. In this case, Western civilization is threatened. And instead of talking as previous presidents have about democracy and human rights as the values that knit the Western alliance together, he went to a different source. He said it’s culture, it’s faith, it’s family. He talked a lot about faith in God, which is actually unusual for Donald Trump. So that was a little bit jarring. It was a Steve Bannon speech, just as the inaugural speech –
MR. COSTA: Talking about the White House chief strategist.
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly, just as the inaugural speech was a Steve Bannon speech, with a couple of important paragraphs from H.R. McMaster about NATO and –
MR. COSTA: National security.
MR. MCMANUS: – national security. So there was about three parts of Bannon and one part McMaster.
MR. COSTA: Well, was there more about perhaps the McMaster wing of the White House – H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, more of a hawkish, traditional voice. He did, Nancy, talk about Article 5, the article in the NATO agreement that if any NATO nation is attacked the U.S. will be there to back them up. He embraced it in his speech. Is that the traditional side as well peeking out?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, look, he didn’t mention it when he was in Brussels just a month ago, and that really irked Europe, which had questions. Remember he had asked repeatedly during the campaign: Why is the U.S. so invested in NATO? Why does the U.S. commit to defending European troops? And then didn’t mention Article 5 a month ago, and then –
MR. COSTA: But he mentioned it this week.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right, and did it in a very aggressive way, which seemed to be a reach out by him and by his staff to sort of calm those fears within Europe, that it was something they needed to hear directly because his visit last month had raised so many questions.
I just want to add to Doyle’s point, not only did he talk about those issues, he talked about them in a country that’s being run by a government that is swirling in controversy, arguably, because of some questions on crack downs on the media, about whether the judicial –
MR. COSTA: In Poland.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right, whether the judiciary’s independent, the position of the government. And he seemed to embrace Poland, which was an interesting position for him to take with this speech.
MR. COSTA: And as the – and as the president’s stepping out, Peter, he has this nationalist theme, but a lot of Western European leaders are having their own policy talks. They’re distancing themselves from the Trump approach on trade, distancing themselves from the Trump approach on climate change.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, they are. In fact, that’s one of the things this meeting was about – was supposed to be about climate change. And you have a sort of 19-to-1 kind of dynamic here, where Angela Merkel is leading the 19 and President Trump is isolated by himself as the one.
The other thing that’s really interesting about this speech, the venue is important. The venue is both, as you say, it’s a rightist government that itself is nationalist in its orientation. On the other hand, it’s meant as a signal to Russia, we are standing with our Eastern European allies, despite whatever doubts we might have placed. But the civilization theme of this speech is echoing also Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin also sees the world right now in this us against them civilization is on the hook, and this Islamic radicalism in the world is threatening us. And we have these shared values, not democracy and human rights, but church, family, you know, Western history. And that we are together in fighting these bad guys.
MR. COSTA: Is that how Western Europe saw it, Yeganeh?
MS. TORBATI: Well, I think – I think that sort of nationalism theme was overriding – although, if you watched the speech you could sort of – if you’re – if you’re Western Europe you could get some comfort from President Trump’s statement about, you know, the Western world united, in the same way that Doyle mentioned. You know, it’s about these issues of religion or, you know, God rather than sort of democratic values. I just wanted to add to Peter’s point about Russia and the West sort of being – that being – that sort of alliance echoing when it comes to Syria as well. I mean, that is the kind of alliance that Secretary Tillerson is sort of pointing out when he says that, you know, we have very common interests when it comes to Syria, that he’s talking about fighting radical –
MR. COSTA: So you’re saying after all the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and then the Soviet Union, now Russia, of course, you think Trump perhaps sees Russia as part of the West?
MS. TORBATI: I think especially when it comes to – I think some of his advisors even talked about this – especially when it comes to fighting, you know, jihadism or what they call radical Islamic terrorism, when it – in Syria, fighting this threat of ISIS, they see Russia as a natural partner in that. And they use that – what they say is, look, like, it’s more important for us to fight this together as opposed to, you know, being opposed to Russia.
MR. MCMANUS: The bigger picture here, though, is that Group of 20, G-20 summit. And the weird thing here is Donald Trump, the great disrupter of American politics, has also turned out to be the great disrupter of world politics. Those countries used to think of the United States as the stabilizer of world politics, and the G-20 meeting is all about multilateral stuff. It’s about 20 countries talking about climate change and trade and pandemics and all this – that’s not “America first.” He’s absolutely the odd man out. As Peter said, it’s 19 against one.
MR. COSTA: And everyone – all the reporting just seemed to echo this question: Does “America first” mean America alone? And that’s what Western Europe is asking.
But that’s not the only issue that’s coming up at the G-20. Another big topic is North Korea. This week’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile has some of the world leaders wondering if the U.S. is moving closer to war. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley raised the specter of using military force at the United Nations. Nancy, what are the options for the U.S. as they grapple with this problem?
MS. YOUSSEF: Militarily, no good ones because the reality is any military action you take puts the ball back in North Korea’s court to essentially escalate it. And so we saw a dance this week, arguably. You saw President Trump go forward and say that he was looking at some pretty serious options. That seemed to be an attempt by him to sort of rattle China and encourage China to do something to mitigate the threat from North Korea. The next day, Secretary of Defense Mattis comes out and he says this puts us no closer to war with North Korea, which was his attempt to calm the fears of South Korea, because when they hear pretty serious threats that’s a direct threat to them. So that was the needle that they were trying to thread.
MR. COSTA: Picking up on that, what is the role of China, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, no, China is singularly important here, obviously. President Trump has gambled in the first four or five months of his presidency that his relationship that he forged at Mar-a-Lago with President Xi Jinping would create a new level of Chinese engagement on the issue and leverage on North Korea. It hasn’t happened, and President Trump has more or less conceded, on his Twitter feed anyway, that it hasn’t happened. But if you’re going to ratchet up the pressure with anything other than military, which doesn’t seem to be much of a viable option, you’re going to have to go after China because 80, 90 percent of the trade is through China. If you’re going to actually push these financial sanctions, you’re going to have to be sanctioning more Chinese entities. Two weeks ago, the Trump administration sanctioned a Chinese bank for its financing –
MR. COSTA: What’s the prospect of that?
MS. TORBATI: It’s a very difficult process. These are the same sorts of sanctions that eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table over its own nuclear program, and they’re called secondary sanctions. It basically bars other countries from doing business with the target country, at risk of U.S. sanctions. And so if the U.S. actually wants to go after North Korea in a serious way financially, a lot of people say the next big option for them is to sanction anyone that does business with North Korea, which basically means China. It’s a huge part of the world economy. The U.S. doesn’t necessarily want to wreck its relationship with China. I mean, it would be a really big step, and the Trump administration does not seem ready for that right now.
MR. COSTA: Doyle, what to make of the president and his administration almost boxing out China with the North Korea question, with trade, dealing in particular with South Korea and Japan when talking about North Korea? Does it signify growing challenges for the U.S.-China relationship?
MR. MCMANUS: It does, and I think – look, the China relationship has always been almost the most difficult in American foreign policy because it’s got everything: a huge economic relationship, a big military potential confrontation, and regional issues like North Korea and the South China Sea. How do you get all these to work together in some kind of sync? It’s hard in simpler times. In this administration, you’ve got a bunch of trade hawks running the trade policy, you’ve got military hawks running the military policy, but there’s no sign that any of these are synchronized with each other.
MR. COSTA: And is Kim Jong-un – what’s going to make him react?
MR. MCMANUS: Kim Jong-un has – the head of North Korea – has the good luck to have a very simple policy: he’s just going to keep on doing what he’s doing.
MR. COSTA: Well, we have to leave it there, Doyle. Thanks, everybody. The North Korea challenge continues. We’ll get to it another time.
And welcome, Yeganeh, to Washington Week.
Our conversation, as always, will continue online on the Washington Week Extra. We’ll talk about the fascination with President Trump in Europe, plus a surprise resignation of the government’s ethics watchdog who took on the Trump administration. You can find that Friday night and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next week.