Trump meets with Putin, albeit an hour late
US President Donald Trump told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that he hopes their two countries can have an 'extraordinary relationship' going forward, just hours after he blamed US policy -- not Putin -- for the dismal state of relations between the two countries.
'I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly, we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,' Trump said. 'I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.'
Trump arrived Monday afternoon at the Finnish presidential palace for what he has called a summit with Putin, hoping once again that his personal touch can reverse the steep decline in US-Russia relations in recent years.
US officials have stressed the path to improving US-Russia ties runs through a clear-eyed understanding of Russian aggression and the root causes of discord in the relationship, but Trump is signaling a different course. He is holding previous US administrations and the Justice Department's investigation stemming from Russian meddling in the 2016 election responsible.
'Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!' Trump tweeted Monday morning ahead of the summit.
Trump and Putin arrived separately at the Finnish presidential palace, about 45 minutes behind schedule. Trump held at his hotel while he waited for Putin, who is known for arriving late to important events, to touch down -- drawing comparisons to Trump's late arrivals at recent summits with US allies.
They then walked into a room at the presidential palace together before offering brief remarks before a gaggle of cameras and reporters, with Trump congratulating Putin once again 'on a really great World Cup.'
The two men shook hands after speaking, before reporters were ushered out.
For the next hour-and-a-half, Trump and Putin are scheduled to hold one-on-one discussions, with only interpreters at their side.
Trump was eager to have time alone with Putin to better personally assess him and develop a personal relationship, according to a US official, but he has also expressed anger at leaks from his meetings with foreign leaders and told aides he wanted to ensure his sensitive discussions with Putin remained secret.
The official also said that Trump doesn't want aides -- who may take a harder line on Russia -- undercutting or interrupting him during his talks with Putin.
Just days earlier, Trump pointed to the 'pure stupidity' and a 'political problem' in the United States for making it 'very hard to do something with Russia.'
'Anything you do, it's always going to be, 'Oh, Russia, he loves Russia,' ' Trump said during a joint news conference with his British counterpart.
Trump's Monday morning tweet and his words and actions in the last week have only amplified concerns about his approach to Russia among US allies and lawmakers of both parties in Washington. During his swing through Brussels and the United Kingdom, Trump has repeatedly criticized US allies, called the European Union a 'foe' and criticized the Obama administration rather than Russia in the wake of the Justice Department's indictment of 12 Russian agents who allegedly worked to hack Democrats' emails and computer networks during the 2016 election.
Ahead of his meeting with Putin -- who is alleged to be behind the assassination of journalists and political dissidents -- the US President also lashed out again at the news media on Sunday by branding journalists 'the enemy of the people.'
Trump again -- as he has repeatedly done -- pointed the finger at his predecessor President Barack Obama and characterized the investigation stemming from Russian election interference as a 'witch hunt.'
'President Obama thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election, so when he was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn't happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it,' Trump tweeted. 'When I won it became a big deal and the Rigged Witch Hunt headed by Strzok!'
Everything from Russian meddling in the 2016 election to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are expected to be on the agenda for their summit here in Helsinki, but Trump has signaled he is most eager to jumpstart talks to 'substantially reduce' the two countries' nuclear weapons arsenals and generally improve US-Russia relations.
Trump is not, however, expected to offer to halt military exercises in the Baltics as part of his discussions with Putin, with a US official telling CNN's Jeff Zeleny 'at least that's the plan going in.'
The question of the Baltics exercises has hung over the summit, particularly after Trump abruptly decided last month to agree to stop joint US-South Korean military exercises during his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump has said he intends to once again ask Putin about Russian efforts to sway the results of the 2016 election, but has signaled he will not press the issue.
'I know you'll ask, will we be talking about meddling. I will absolutely bring that up. I don't think you'll have any, 'Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.' There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think, but you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question,' Trump said.
Trump has sought to cool expectations in the last days leading up to the summit, saying in an interview Saturday that he planned to arrive in Helsinki 'with very low expectations.'
'I think that getting along with Russia is a good thing, but it's possible we won't,' Trump said.