President Barack Obama was running behind.
In Moscow for bilateral talks with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev in the summer of 2009, Obama took a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, widely understood to be the power behind the throne. Now, the meeting with Putin was going well beyond the allotted hour, and the President was late for an appointment with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
As a senior adviser, I was asked to sit in with Gorbachev until Obama arrived. During our 45 minutes of conversation, the aging Soviet leader, still spry at 78, mused about his meetings with President Ronald Reagan that led to historic breakthroughs in US-Soviet relations.
“He would sometimes go off on tangents and (Secretary of State) George Schultz, who was sitting next to him, would gently place his hand on Reagan’s. And Reagan would just stop,” Gorbachev told me.
I thought of this story when we learned that President Donald Trump had had an unreported conversation with Putin at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg — with no aides present and only Putin’s translator as a party to the chat.
Even if the darkening cloud of Russia’s incursion on the 2016 election were not hanging over Trump, such a scenario would have set off alarm bells.
The specter of an inexperienced president, engaged alone in a lengthy, private exchange with the cunning and seasoned leader of an adversarial nation defies every rule of diplomacy and good sense. Such scenarios play to the advantage of the other side — leaving ours prone to manipulation.
And it is highly unusual for a president to have such a conversation without, at a minimum, his own translator to avoid any misinterpretation on either side.
While sidebars between leaders at global conferences are not unusual, such lengthy conversations, where more than pleasantries are being exchanged, rarely occur without an aide, a note taker or witness to record what was said.
And yet the only other participant in Trump’s discussion with Putin was the translator who works for the Russians. (Trump’s translator did not speak Russian. He spoke Japanese, since Trump had initially been seated next to Japanese President Shinzo Abe.)
It also must have struck a chilling note for other G20 leaders to see the American President engrossed in a lengthy, private conversation with a Russian strongman whose seizure of territory from Ukraine and election subterfuge throughout Europe has unsettled the continent.
No diplomat I spoke with could do anything but scratch their heads over this strange departure from protocol.
The timing of this news comes amid other developments that are heightening suspicions about Trump’s relationship with the Russians. First, there are the revelations about a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the campaign’s high command and Russians who were promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then, there’s the Washington Post report that the administration has decided to end support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a decision that was long sought by Putin, who counts the Syrian dictator as a client of Russia.
Yet even without the growing questions about potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians and other issues, the President’s decision to engage Putin would be disturbing.
For time immemorial, presidents and their teams have carefully plotted and orchestrated such encounters to ensure that both sides understood their meeting.
Reagan had Schultz at his side. Trump apparently believed he needed no such counsel or company.
The most charitable explanation for this break in protocol would be the combination of hubris and naïveté in a President who prides himself on the “art of the deal.”
Another possibility, darker and far more disturbing, is that America’s interests were mortgaged in a stealthy political deal cut some time ago.