Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin may use his one-on-one meeting with President Trump in Helsinki to drive a wedge between NATO allies by claiming secret side deals with the United States.
Congressional Republicans are urging the White House to get ahead of the Kremlin by defining what was and wasn’t agreed to. What was said between the two leaders, they admit, remains a disconcerting mystery.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) says he has “no idea” what Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov meant when he said Wednesday that Trump and Putin had entered into “important verbal agreements.”
Corker expressed concern about talk that the White House and Kremlin are “setting up a second meeting so they can begin implementation” of these mystery agreements.
Other Republicans pointed to the lack of transparency as problematic.
“I don’t know what happened privately, nobody does,” said Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), adding that Trump needs to publicize whatever efforts he made to push back against Putin in their private meeting.
“It’s not enough just to raise it privately because everyone is watching, including our allies, including the people of Russia, including our intelligence agencies,” he said of any grievances Trump may have aired with Putin.
Members of Congress worry that Russia will use the Helsinki summit to undermine U.S. relations with NATO allies, especially with former East bloc and Soviet states that Putin views as within his country’s traditional sphere of influence.
Antonov said this week that Trump and Putin reached verbal agreements on two charged issues: Syria and arms control.
“The White House better get out in front of this before the Russians start characterizing this,” warned Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and frequent Trump critic. “The Russians will use this.”
“There’s so little trust of this president, our president, among our allies,” he added.
U.S. security officials recognize that undermining NATO is one of Putin’s top foreign policy goals.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford warned Congress last year that Russia “every day is undermining the credibility of our alliance commitment to NATO and our ability to respond to NATO.”
Republican lawmakers worry that Trump may be unwittingly advancing that strategy by criticizing allies sharply at a NATO summit in Brussels and then embracing Putin in Helsinki.
Flake noted that in a recent trip to Latvia he and his colleagues witnessed a concerted Russian propaganda campaign to convince Baltic states that “NATO is weak” and “America is an unreliable ally.”
Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, said that while Russia’s remarks about the outcome of an international summit wouldn’t normally be viewed as credible, Trump’s unorthodox style creates an atmosphere of uncertainty.
“In normal circumstances I would say that statements by Russia about their inferences about particular meetings are not especially credible or important or right or destabilizing,” she said. “The problem is because our president is himself so loosey-goosey about his leadership, about these meetings, about fundamentally everything that we can begin to worry.”
But agreements entered into solely by the president don’t carry a lot of weight, she said, pointing to former President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran that largely circumvented congressional approval.
“If the president has verbal discussions with anybody and no one else is there, no one can reasonably be expected to act on them,” she said.
Even so, congressional Republicans aren’t taking any chances about how the optics of the situation may affect bedrock international security arrangements.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the unusual step of telling European Union allies Tuesday that Republicans in Congress value NATO and view Russia as a hostile adversary.
“We believe the European Union countries are our friends and the Russians are not,” McConnell told reporters. “We understand the Russian threat.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) warned on the Senate floor Thursday that the president and senior U.S. officials should be careful not to undermine Western alliances.
“Words matter. And what Americans say can bolster or shake confidence in the United States,” Moran said, adding that a recent trip to Russia, Norway and Finland left him “unconvinced that that Russia is prepared to change its behavior.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said concern that fallout from the summit could weaken U.S.-NATO relations “is warranted.”
But he said “it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.”
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