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The Private Putin Meeting and Trump’s Legitimacy

Walter Russell Mead

At a dinner at the G20 summit, President Trump got up and walked over to Vladimir Putin for a one-on-one conversation, with only Putin’s interpreter present, that lasted for anywhere between a few minutes (White House version) and as long as an hour (reported by Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, citing other leaders who remarked on the exchange). The New York Times notes why this is a problem:

“We’re all going to be wondering what was said, and that’s where it’s unfortunate that there was no U.S. interpreter, because there is no independent American account of what happened,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine who also specializes in Russia and nuclear arms control.

“If I was in the Kremlin, my recommendation to Putin would be, ‘See if you can get this guy alone,’ and that’s what it sounds like he was able to do,” added Mr. Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

This all may have been as perfectly innocent, as the White House is claiming. But Trump’s willingness to meet with Putin without even an American interpreter present was at best a sign that he hasn’t mastered some of the most basic elements of his job; whatever happened in that meeting, the impossibility of knowing what was said there will further diminish the President’s ability to lead the country.

It is news stories like this that will endanger the legitimacy of the Trump presidency; the naive belief that something like this could be concealed is almost as troubling as some of the more sinister interpretations Trump’s most inveterate critics will place on this mysterious and unsettling encounter.

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