From a political perspective, President Trump’s decision to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington is baffling, because it goes against everything we know about how this president makes decisions.
It’s baffling that he would look at something that has earned him near-universal criticism in the media and within his own party — and then decide to do it again.
This is a president who feeds off media coverage, so obsessively watching cable news that his aides appear to have folded it into his daily schedule. He has even been known to make or reverse decisions based on what he sees on TV.
A month ago, Trump abruptly decided to end his administration’s policy of separating families apprehended at the border after criticism of it reached a fever pitch. In November, Trump ended the import of elephant trophies from Africa just a week after his own administration reopened it, after conservative TV hosts voiced their aversion to big-game trophies.
You would think this would be one of those times. Even Fox News hosts were aghast at Trump’s summit with Putin. The Republican-controlled Senate passed a resolution Thursday to stop Trump from allowing Putin to interrogate Americans. More legislation seeking to rein in Trump’s deferential tendencies to Putin could be coming.
And yet Trump is defiantly making plans to hold a second meeting with Putin.
“We got along very well,” Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernan on Thursday. “Look, the fact is, we got along very well. We, I think, could do great things for his country, but for our country. I’m interested in our country. I’m also interested in the world.”
As with so much of Trump’s approach to Russia relations, this invitation is the opposite of how he usually operates.
Trump prides himself on getting tough with world leaders. He labeled the European Union a “foe.” When greeting French President Emmanuel Macron, he gripped his hand in what appeared to be attempt to show dominance. Trump unilaterally instituted tariffs on China, Canada and the European Union, despite opposition from Republicans in Congress.
By contrast, Trump dragged his feet on implementing sanctions against Russia for election interference, even after Congress forced his hand with a veto-proof majority. When he met with Putin, Trump refused to publicly challenge the Russian president on something his own government has confirmed — brazenly interfering in American democracy.
Trump’s decision to meet with Putin again is baffling from a PR perspective, but it is even more incomprehensible from a counterintelligence perspective. Trump’s own spy chief, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, didn’t even know Trump had invited Putin. Cameras caught Coats’s very candid reaction Thursday when he found out. He did not seem to approve.
Coats had just told NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell that he did not think Trump should have met privately with Putin in the first place. “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way,” he said.
Implicit in that criticism is that a person charged with keeping the country safe thinks what Trump did was unwise. And Trump is going to do it again.
There’s a much broader concern beyond the fact that Trump would invite a political adversary to the United States without first conferring with top intelligence officials: Trump increasingly seems to be operating without the advice and consent of his own government.
This has been a Trump tendency since the very beginning of his presidency. He rolled out a travel ban without alerting the department in charge of implementing it. He tweeted that transgender troops would be banned from serving in the military, catching his military chiefs off guard. When he decided to reverse the decision on separating immigrant children from their parents, The Washington Post reported that his own government had basically no clue what to do next:
Senior DHS officials went through the day with little or no knowledge of what the executive order would ask them to do, or how it would alter the policy they’ve been instructed to vociferously defend in public for the past several weeks.
Trump’s own government tried to warn him off doing what he did with Russia. In the days before Trump met Putin in Finland, The Post reports, Trump’s advisers gave him some 100 pages of briefing documents outlining Russia as an adversary. He ignored much of it.
Trump doesn’t just seem to be making decisions without his own government. He appears to be keeping those decisions from key players. Coats says he still doesn’t know what Trump and Putin talked about in private.
Chaos is Trump’s governing M.O. Reacting quickly to media coverage is Trump’s governing M.O. But with Russia — especially with Russia — Trump keeps doing things differently, and the unanswered question is: Why?