WASHINGTON — On the eve of a face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman downplayed expectations, saying there is not a firm set of goals the president is hoping to achieve.
“You don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting,” Huntsman said on “Meet the Press” from Helsinki Sunday, where the two leaders will sit down together, insisting that the one-on-one is not a summit but a "meeting" where for the first time the two leaders will "have a conversation.”
"I hope it's a detailed conversation about where we might be able to find some overlapping and shared interests," Huntsman said.
The meeting comes just days after the Justice Department announced charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers for interference in the 2016 election, bringing the total of Russians charged to 25.
Trump has said he would “absolutely, firmly ask the question” about meddling in the election, but Huntsman said he’s unsure if Trump will ask Putin to extradite those charged.
“I don’t know if he’ll make the ask,” Huntsman said. “It may be part of the agenda, it may be part of their bilateral meeting together. We’ll have to see. It just came onto the agenda last Friday. It’s something that’s brand new.”
"I don't think the details are a surprise to folks who have followed this," Huntsman added. "That now makes probably almost 30 Russians who have been rolled up by the Mueller indictment. That investigation continues. And I think the bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did."
Democrats have called on the president to cancel the meeting in light of the indictments or to at least have a high-level staffer in the room with him.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on “Meet the Press” that he’s “very concerned” about a one-on-one meeting.
“I'd feel a lot better if Ambassador Huntsman, who I have a lot of confidence in, was actually sitting in on the meeting,” Warner said.
"With Putin, you’ve got a trained KGB agent, who does his homework. My fear is that Putin could come in with maps of Ukraine, maps of Syria and try to cut some deal, and frankly take advantage of this president," Warner added. "So I really would feel much better if there were other Americans in the room making sure that we make the point that the first and top point of this agenda should be no Russian interference in our elections."
But Huntsman didn’t indicate that adding staff to the meeting would happen, instead saying it’s an opportunity for the two leaders to sit down and talk.
“This is an attempt to see if we can diffuse and take some of the drama and quite frankly some of the danger out of the relationship right now,” Huntsman said.
On the issue of Crimea, Huntsman couldn’t say definitively that Trump wouldn’t side with Russia on the issue. Huntsman said “it’s highly unlikely” that Trump would change the U.S. position that Russia violated international law by annexing the country of Crimea in 2014.
“The agenda is the president's,” Huntsman said. “Everything will be his call but I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any change in Crimea.”