Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, and by all accounts, a variety of U.S. officials are concerned about whether the American leader is prepared for the discussion. Given what we know about Trump, those concerns appear well grounded.
But before we consider how the meeting will go, it's worth pausing to ask why the meeting is happening at all. When Putin invaded parts of Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the American response was to isolate Russia -- economically and diplomatically. And yet, tomorrow, Putin will nevertheless leave the penalty box and interact with the sitting American president. As Rachel put it on last night's show:
"From what is now our American perspective, how exactly has [Putin] earned his way out of that? How has he earned a face-to-face, full scale bilateral meeting with the U.S. president? What has he done to deserve that meeting and that respect?"Other than launching a massive cyberattack on our presidential election last year? And threatening to shoot down U.S. jets over Syria just a couple of weeks ago, and sending their Russian fighter jets to buzz American ships and planes all over the world, and these new credible allegations that Russian firms are selling weapons and oil to North Korea as North Korea is shooting off an ICBM? Other than that, what has Putin done to earn this?"
The White House hasn't gone out of its way to explain why this meeting will take place, instead treating it as a rather routine diplomatic development. Except, it's not -- because American diplomacy with a country that launched the most serious attack on us since 9/11 is anything but routine.
Making matters worse, of course, is the fact that Putin is a seasoned head of state -- and a former KGB official -- preparing to engage the least experienced and least prepared American president in history, who, up until fairly recently, was a strange television personality.
The New York Times reported yesterday, "Even his top aides do not know precisely what Mr. Trump will decide to say or do when he and Mr. Putin meet face to face on Friday.... And that is what most worries those advisers as well as officials across his administration."
Trump administration officials, the L.A. Times added, realize that the president won't go through briefing books -- he's not exactly a reader -- so aides have written "a list of tweet-length sentences that summarize the main points Trump could bring up with Putin."
What could possibly go wrong?
Note, the Trump-Putin conversation was originally supposed to be a more casual pull-aside chat, but it appears White House officials saw that as problematic -- because it might be easier for the Russian president to manipulate Trump in such a setting. The Daily Beast reported that Trump aides "have been pushing to stack the meeting with officials who might help nudge Trump in the right direction -- or at least present a more politically palatable front."
An administration official said, "The idea is to get as many adults in the room as humanly possible."
If you're starting to get the impression that Trump's aides have some concerns about Trump's competence, you're not alone.
Postscript: This won't be Trump's first meeting with Russian officials as president. The first came in May, when the American president welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the Oval Office -- because Putin asked that the meeting take place.
At this gathering, Trump managed to disclose highly-classified secrets, make a damaging admission about his firing of the FBI director, and create a security risk -- because Russia "tricked" White House officials.
Here's hoping tomorrow's get-together is less problematic.