Beyond the tight smiles and hunched shoulders, the brief handshake and the careful mutual praise, the first meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin cemented a bond that will define the Trump presidency – for better or for worse.
Trump called it an “honor” to meet Putin. Putin said he was “delighted” to meet Trump. Intriguingly, and so far mysteriously, Trump whispered something to Putin that drew a chuckle from the Russian leader.
On one level, it was just an initial meeting between two powerful men who understand the power of creating and manipulating imagery. Trump and Putin both have spent decades cultivating strongman personas, even though their personal styles are different.
But the sheer range of issues on their combined agenda – both what they will talk about and what they won’t – is dizzying. From Syria to North Korea, China to Eastern Europe, cyberwarfare to the shooting kind of conflict, the Trump-Putin relationship has the potential to shape the lives of millions.
All of that would be true even if Trump didn’t face a widening investigation back home over his campaign’s possible ties to Putin’s Russia. And it would still be true even if the U.S. president's true feelings toward Putin and Russia weren’t so murky.
“We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States, and for everybody concerned,” Trump said during the public portion of the meeting, in a sentence that can be read as either boilerplate or as a window into the president’s true thinking.
“I hope that, as you said, our meeting will have positive results,” Putin said moments later.
For generations, American presidents have seen their legacies linked to Russian leaders. The paired names alone conjure familiar imagery: Roosevelt and Stalin, Kennedy and Khrushchev, Reagan and Gorbachev, Clinton and Yeltsin, and – memorably and more recently – Putin with first George W. Bush and then with Obama.
Given the back story around Putin and Trump, every frame of video featuring the two men together is a rich tapestry for dissection and speculation. Did Putin avoid eye contact with Trump? Who smiled first? What did Trump say – and in what language – to make Putin laugh?
What matters from here, of course, are the actions. Even some of Trump's friends and allies are mystified by his refusal to speak ill of Putin and Russia except in oblique ways. Congress continues to debate proposals that would limit the president’s options when it comes to sanctions and the relationship with Russia.
A day before his meeting at the G-20 summit with Putin, the U.S. president at a news conference in Poland publicly undermined both U.S. intelligence agencies and the American news media. It’s not hard to imagine – despite Putin's famous poker face – that it was a comment by Trump on one of these topics that made the Russian leader smile.
Part of Trump’s apparent admiration for Putin can be explained by his respect for strong leaders who understand how to use modern communications as Trump himself does. Some of it may be strategic, given the range of thorny issues on which Russia could be either helpful or harmful to American interests.
Either way, this was not just two guys sharing a handshake and a friendly joke. This is a first meeting in a relationship that could define the success or failure of a U.S. presidency.