Why you should care

Because as the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election heats up, President Donald Trump is sitting down with the man said to be behind it.

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WHAT TO KNOW

What’s about to happen? After provoking NATO allies this week with incendiary comments and slamming U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan, President Donald Trump heads to Helsinki, Finland, for his first summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After a rough tour in Europe, Trump may relish a warmer welcome in Russia, which has some U.S. and European leaders worried that the American president will unduly praise — or grant concessions to — another adversary and authoritarian leader, just as he did at his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this month.

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Press conference of Donald Trump the President of the United States on the second day of the NATO Summit in Brussels.

Source Barcroft Media via Getty

What’s on the table? Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Moscow’s interference in Ukraine and support for Bashar Assad in Syria, and strategic arms control are all key sticking points in the ever-testy relationship between Moscow and Washington. But few believe any meaningful progress is on the horizon. Despite the theater of the summit and the politically charged atmosphere it will take place within, there are likely too many interests (and personalities) at play to guarantee any major breakthroughs.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

It’s still an easy win for Putin. While the Russian strongman would certainly prefer that Trump lift U.S. sanctions on Russia, or officially recognize its annexation of Crimea, he doesn’t need either to declare victory at home. That’s because the master tactician and his team are experts at crafting a narrative that casts him as a respected statesman. Also, in this case, Trump’s erratic behavior plays right into the Russian state media’s efforts to color the U.S. as dysfunctional and chaotic — which makes Putin look cool and in control.

And Trump can’t offer much, anyway. Despite probably wanting his own kind of “reset” with Russia, as well as his infamous reluctance to criticize Putin, Trump is still too constrained by a Washington establishment averse to Moscow to provide any major concessions. Besides, numerous officials have expressed dismay over how poorly prepared the U.S. president is to meet an experienced and politically savvy counterpart seeking to exploit any possible weakness.

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U.S. President John F Kennedy (1917 - 1963, left) shakes hands with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894 - 1971) at the Vienna Summit, Austria, June 4, 1961.

Source Getty

Looking for middle ground on neutral soil. In meeting with Putin, Trump will be the latest of a long line of American leaders trying to find middle ground between East and West. There was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s conference with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Tehran in 1943, and then the disastrous meeting in Vienna between John F. Kennedy (under heavy medication for back pain) and Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. When George W. Bush met Putin in Slovenia in 2001, he said he “got a sense of his soul,” and while Putin and President Obama never had a summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a poorly translated “reset” button to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2009.

The elephant in the room. “He may deny it. All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and, ‘Don’t do it again,’” Trump said about Putin and his government’s possible meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Russian president has consistently denied the interference. Although it seems a precarious time to hold the summit, Trump has pushed for the meeting since Putin’s re-election and despite warnings from advisers. But as the Mueller investigation continues to unearth further evidence about ties between Russian operatives and Trump officials during the 2016 election and after, will the prospect of any sort of “reset” between the two nations grow increasingly untenable?

WHAT TO READ

Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — or His Handler? by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine

“What is missing from our imagination is the unlikely but possible outcome on the other end: that this is all much worse than we suspect.”

The Surprising Promise of the Trump-Putin Summit, by Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs

“Once in place, a normalized U.S.-Russian diplomatic relationship should be Washington’s vehicle for shaping Russian behavior. The United States cannot coerce Russia into doing its will.”

WHAT TO WATCH

President Trump: Putin’s Not My Enemy, He’s My ‘Competitor’

“Hopefully, someday maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen.”

Watch on Fox News on YouTube:

Former CIA Director John Brennan: Trump Not Smart Enough to Realize Putin’s Playing Him

“Mr. Trump is turning a blind eye to [Russian meddling] because it doesn’t help what he wants to do.”

Watch on MSNBC on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER

Could Putin boost Trump’s popularity? Bellicose actions can sometimes boost presidential popularity, but pursuing peace can also pay dividends in the polls. President Trump’s poll numbers climbed shortly after he launched his peace initiative with North Korea, and new research suggests that previous presidents such as Bill Clinton have seen bigger boosts in the polls when they pursued peace with foreign adversaries than when they engaged in war or conflicts with them

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