Ahead of the Trump-Putin Summit, Go Inside Putin’s Meetings with 3 Previous U.S. Presidents

July 13, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during negotiations with Belarusian officials in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Update: On July 13, 2018, the Justice Department announced indictments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the DCCC. 

On Monday, July 16, President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. It’s not the first time the two leaders will have met in person while in office, but it will be their first formal meeting – and its initial phase is expected to include just Trump and Putin in the room.

As FRONTLINE recounted in the Fall 2017 documentary Putin’s Revenge, Trump frequently praised the Russian leader on the campaign trail. Despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia mounted a sophisticated hacking and interference campaign in the 2016 election, as president Trump has repeatedly pointed to Putin’s denials of responsibility. Trump said he will raise the issue of election meddling again in his July 16 meeting with Putin.

In Putin’s Revenge, FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team investigated how the U.S. intelligence community came to believe Putin targeted the 2016 U.S. election, and how the Russian leader rose from low-ranking KGB agent to long-serving president of a newly assertive Russia with the ability to wage cyber-war in the U.S. and across the globe.

The film also traced how Putin came to view the U.S. as an enemy — and how his relationships with presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama unfolded. 

In the run-up to the Trump-Putin summit, revisit Putin’s early meetings with these three former American presidents in these excerpts drawn from Putin’s Revenge.

Clinton: “He Doesn’t Have Democracy in His Heart”

In 2000, shortly after Putin began his first term as president after being selected for the role by Boris Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton visited the Kremlin to size up the new leader. As this scene from Putin’s Revenge explores, Putin seemed indifferent to the American president who had championed Yeltsin and liberalization and expanded NATO — an indifference that didn’t go over well with Clinton. Later that day, Clinton issued a warning. “Bill Clinton looked hard into Yeltsin’s eyes and said, ‘I’m a little bit concerned about this young man that you have turned over the presidency to. He doesn’t have democracy in his heart,’” Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State from 1994-2001, told FRONTLINE.

Bush: “I Was Able to Get a Sense of His Soul”

After a tense relationship with Clinton, Putin took a different approach with President George W. Bush in 2001. “He spends time thinking about who this guy is, what motivates him, what works him,” Peter Baker, author of Kremlin Rising, told FRONTLINE. “This is the old KGB officer whose job it is to basically turn people towards his interests, and he plays it that way.” By focusing on Bush’s strong Christian beliefs, Putin — who shared a story about a religious medallion that belonged to his mother and was recovered after a fire — initially won the U.S. president over, even earning an invitation to Bush’s ranch. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Bush said. Putin was reportedly the first foreign leader to speak with Bush after the September 11 attacks. But Bush’s pursuit of regime change in Iraq afterwards, and his administration’s “freedom agenda” across the globe, would change everything for Putin — who thought the U.S. was overstepping its bounds, and might come for him next.

 

Obama: Putin, A Man Locked in the Past

Putin was serving as prime minister, not president, when he met Obama for the first time in 2009. A short first question from Obama was answered with a 45-minute “monologue” from Putin, according to William Burns, who was at the time the under secretary of state of political affairs. It was a pattern that would continue: “You end up having to endure a bit of a history lecture. Deal with the- what we used to call ‘the airing of grievances’ at the beginning of every meeting,” Jon Finer, Obama adviser from 2009-13, said of Obama’s conversations with the Russian leader. That, Peter Baker told FRONTLINE, “tells Obama everything he needs to know about Putin, that this is somebody who is, in his mind, locked in the past, who is- who is nursing resentment and who is going to never be a full partner of the United States.” Then came the Arab Spring, and in particular, the downfall of Putin’s ally, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi – who Obama’s then-secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had built an international coalition to oppose. As Putin’s Revenge recounts, Putin saw the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world as the U.S.’s doing. And he was determined that he would not be the next ruler to fall. 

For more on Putin, his motivations, and his relationships with Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump, stream Putin’s Revenge in full, for free, on FRONTLINE’s website.

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