WASHINGTON ― Just two years after working to put Donald Trump in the White House, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is now getting help from Trump to achieve foreign policy objectives that Russia has sought for years.
Trump has loudly criticized the NATO military alliance as unduly burdensome for the United States. He has started a trade war with many of those same allies. And on his way to the G-7 summit of industrialized democracies Friday morning, he suggested that those nations re-admit Russia to the gathering ― even though Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, the reason it was expelled from the group in the first place.
"If this were a screenplay, Hollywood would have thrown it out as too ridiculous," said Tom Nichols, a Russia expert at the Naval War College. "I can't think of anybody who thinks this is a good idea."
"Today crystallizes precisely why Putin was so eager to see Trump elected," said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and the National Security Council spokesman under then-President Barack Obama. "For Putin, this is return on his investment, and it's safe to say that his investment has paid off beyond even his wildest dreams."
On his way from the White House to a Marine helicopter waiting on the South Lawn, Trump told reporters that Putin probably wished that Democrat Hillary Clinton had been elected president rather than him. He has offered this comment many times before, notwithstanding a U.S. intelligence community assessment that Putin interfered in the election with the goal of helping Trump win.
"I have been Russia's worst nightmare," Trump boasted. "But with that being said, Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting? And I would recommend, and it's up to them, but Russia should be in the meeting. They should be a part of it. You know, whether you like it or not ― and it may not be politically correct ― but we have a world to run. And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in. Because we should have Russia at the negotiating table."
Steven Pifer, a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton, said to bring Russia back into the G-7 would be to reward Putin's military aggression. "Russia was booted after it seized and illegally annexed Crimea. It went on to spark a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000. That should not win Moscow an invitation back to the G-8 table," Pifer said.
Neither the White House nor the National Security Council was willing to elaborate on Trump's statement Friday.
That reluctance makes sense, Nichols said, because Trump's off-the-cuff remark likely took the rest of the government by surprise. "The president blurts something out, and then the entire foreign policy apparatus has to back up and reverse engineer why it's not a terrible idea," he said.
"I don't think this is a policy. I think, like most things in this White House, this is a reaction," he added, calling it a function of Trump's need to "win" each week of his reality TV presidency. "What could I do to annoy the G-7? I know! I could bring back Putin, and then at least I would have one friend."
Trump, despite his frequent claims of "no collusion" with Russia, spent the final month of the presidential campaign highlighting stolen emails that were damaging to his opponent ― even though U.S. intelligence had already informed him that Russian spy agencies had stolen the emails and were releasing them through WikiLeaks.
His son Donald Trump Jr. was in contact with WikiLeaks during those weeks, and in June 2016 he had convened a meeting between top campaign officials and Russians with ties to that nation's intelligence agencies. Trump Jr. had called the meeting after receiving an offer of material damaging to Clinton.
President Trump has also claimed that he hasn't had business interests in Russia, yet just weeks before voting began in the 2016 primaries, he was actively seeking Putin's help for a hotel deal in Moscow.
While Trump has pushed for closer relations with Putin since taking office, he has created rifts between the United States and its traditional allies. He has repeatedly accused NATO countries of cheating the U.S. by not spending enough on defense ― even though under a 2014 agreement, the countries have a full decade to ramp up their spending to the target level. In recent months, he has antagonized U.S. allies around the world by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum. Other nations are preparing to raise retaliatory tariffs, leading to fears of a trade war that could hurt the economies of all the parties involved.
Trump has justified the tariffs on the grounds of national security ― that having strong steel and aluminum industries is critical to the safety of the United States ― but then has undercut that argument by suggesting the tariffs were negotiable if other nations purchased more U.S. goods.
"Why isn't the European Union and Canada informing the public that for years they have used massive Trade Tariffs and non-monetary Trade Barriers against the U.S.," Trump tweeted on Thursday. "Totally unfair to our farmers, workers & companies. Take down your tariffs & barriers or we will more than match you!"
Leaders of Canada and Europe have said Trump's attitude makes it plain that they can't count on the United States to maintain the post-World War II order that it took the lead in establishing decades ago.
"Undermining this order makes no sense at all. Because it would only play into the hands of those who seek a new post-West order where liberal democracy and its fundamental freedoms would cease to exist," Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said Friday at the start of the G-7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada. "What worries me most, however, is the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged. Quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S."
Foreign policy experts suggested that Trump either doesn't understand or doesn't care about the postwar alliances and the possible consequences of wrecking them.
"If the United States ends up facing a future Afghanistan or Iraq situation, it may find no allies or partners prepared to help out," Pifer said. "None of this is in the U.S. interest. It is worrisome that the president does not seem to understand that."
Trade experts, meanwhile, are exasperated that Trump doesn't seem to grasp even the basics of international commerce or to know which countries the United States has trade agreements with.
On Friday morning, for example, Trump tweeted, "Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries. If it doesn't happen, we come out even better!"
But of the other six G-7 nations, the United States has a trade deal with only one: Canada. And Trump has levied steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada as well, while he threatens to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The United States had been working on an agreement with the European Union nations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but that effort was abandoned after Trump won the presidency. Japan and Canada are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-country pact that Trump pulled out of after taking office.
"The whole purpose of T-TIP was to open the U.S. market to Europe and vice versa. Now that's been thrown under the bus along with TPP," said Monica de Bolle, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
She said Trump wrongly cites trade balances with individual countries, a largely meaningless metric, to attack trade deals. "Trade is a web. It's not a buy-sell thing. It's a web," she said. "The stupidity of this is hard to exaggerate."