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GOP to White House: End summit mystery

The Hill logo The Hill 7/21/2018 Alexander Bolton

a group of people standing in a room © Provided by The Hill 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 Eastern 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 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 counties 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 Moscow, 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."

NATO alliances don't depend on the president alone, he noted.

"If, for example, Trump promised somehow to abandon an ally, first of all he really couldn't if a treaty binds us to them, and second of all, the ally would presumably raise this issue with us the minute the Russians whispered some threat in their ear," O'Hanlon said. "At that point, Trump would have the chance to deny or correct or repudiate whatever the Russians were saying."

Nevertheless, longtime U.S. allies have been unsettled by Trump's foreign policy stances, even before he met with Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in May that Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement "damages trust in the international order," and that Europe could no longer rely on the United States to provide for its security.

"It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands," she said.

Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), a Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said "we shouldn't be just guessing on the statements of the Russian ambassador" about what was agreed to at the summit.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has demanded the U.S. government translator who attended the private Trump-Putin meeting be made available to testify before Congress.

He and other Democrats also want the White House to turn over contemporaneous notes from the summit.

In a letter to Trump this week, Democrats asked what "suggestions" Putin made to the president, whether the two leaders agreed to any changes in international security agreements and whether they made any commitments about the future presence of U.S. military forces in Syria, among other questions.

They also asked if the president discussed sanctions relief for Russia, NATO military exercises in the fall, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine or made any other commitments to Putin.

Republicans say they hope to learn details about what Trump discussed and may have agreed to when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

If questions remain after his appearance, Corker said he would consider asking for notes or testimony from the American translator who was present at the meeting with Putin.

But he cautioned it would be a last resort.

"It feels a little out of bounds," Corker said. "I'm open to listening. I'd rather address it after the Pompeo hearing on Wednesday and see how transparent that ends up being."

"I'm not going to say no, no, no," he added. "If there's no transparency, maybe we'll revisit it."

So far, Flake is the only Senate Republican to back Schumer's call for the White House to turn over notes from the summit.

"I would hope that those notes - all interpreters take notes - would be turned over," he said Thursday. "We need to know.

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