Souvenir matryoshka dolls depicting Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, on display at a tourist stall in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Trump Gives Russia a Pass on Meddling, Announces July 16 Putin Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump said Russia continues to deny interference in the U.S. presidential election on Thursday shortly before the White House and Kremlin simultaneously announced he will meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16 for their first bilateral summit.

“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” President Trump said on Twitter, before writing a barrage of tweets Thursday criticizing the U.S. investigation that has dogged his presidency and led to a downward spiral in relations with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government at the “highest levels” approved covert activities in the 2016 campaign that made Trump president.

The details of the summit were released a day after President Putin hosted U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton for talks in Moscow. The unusually warm discussions in the Kremlin Wednesday came amid the worst tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals since the Cold War.

Trump has pushed for improving the relationship -- inviting Putin to the White House in a March phone call after the Russian leader’s re-election to a fourth term as president. The mere fact of the summit is a boost for Kremlin efforts to ease its international isolation, though officials had played down hopes of any breakthrough.

‘First Steps’

“Your visit to Moscow gives us hope that we can make at least the first steps toward restoring full-scale relations between our countries,” Putin told Bolton at the opening of their meeting Wednesday.

Trump startled other Western leaders earlier this month when he said the Group of Seven should re-admit Russia on the eve of its annual summit in Quebec. The group of industrialized democracies suspended Russia’s participation after its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Trump will visit the U.K. on July 13 around the time of a NATO summit. Some officials there are concerned about what the U.S. president may do when he meets Putin and worry he could outline a plan to reduce the American military presence around Europe’s Eastern boundaries. They note that right after that June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump called off joint military exercises with South Korea that had been an irritant to Pyongyang.

But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that he welcomed a Trump-Putin meeting. “NATO’s approach to Russia is what we call a dual-track approach. It is defense and dialogue,” he said. “For me, dialogue is not a sign of weakness. Dialogue is a sign of strength.”

The meeting between Putin and Trump comes as the U.S. president faces relentless pressure over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 campaign and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it. Putin has said there was no meddling, and Trump has called the continuing investigation into whether people around his campaign colluded with Russia a “witch hunt.”

But Trump has vacillated from time to time on whether he believes Putin’s assurances that Russia didn’t interfere -- or instead accepts the finding of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately help Trump win.

Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that he expects Trump to discuss Russian interference in U.S. elections, the Kremlin’s military incursions into Ukraine and Syria and other touchy subjects when he meets with Putin.

‘Broad Range’

“There are a broad range of issues the president’s going to talk about that need to be addressed,” Pence said in an interview with Bloomberg News aboard Air Force Two on Wednesday. They include the “economic relationship with the United States and Russia and countries of the world.”

Trump has said he’s confronted Putin about Russia’s involvement in the election in previous meetings. He has enacted new sanctions Congress ordered against Russia to punish the country for its election activities and hasn’t lifted sanctions put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The summit “is of huge significance,” Kremlin foreign-policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters Wednesday. “It will be the main international event of the summer.”

Bolton said it’s “not unusual” for Trump and Putin to meet because other world leaders have also had such talks with Putin. Bolton, though, added that “the summit itself is a deliverable.”

“I don’t think that we expect necessarily any specific outcomes or decisions” from the meeting, Bolton said. “It’s important after the length of time that has gone by without a bilateral summit like this to allow them to cover all the issues they choose.”

The summit is above all a symbolic achievement for Putin as he seeks to put ties with the U.S. back on track with Trump in the White House, said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, à research group set up by the Kremlin.

“It means he can reverse the trend in our relations, ensure they have hit the bottom and legitimize them once again,” Kortunov said in an interview in Moscow.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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