WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has told aides he'd like to hold an in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the November election, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Administration officials have explored various times and locations for another Trump-Putin summit, including potentially next month in New York, these people said.
The goal of a summit would be for the two leaders to announce progress towards a new nuclear arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia, the people familiar with the discussions said. One option under consideration is for the two leaders to sign a blueprint for a way forward in negotiations on extending New START, a nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia that expires next year, three of the people familiar with the discussions said.
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They said Trump sees a summit as an opportunity to be presidential and demonstrate he's able to negotiate agreements.
"He wants it to show his deal-maker abilities," one of them said. "It's just a big stage."
A White House official said the president's team plans to have him hold more meetings with world leaders in the weeks leading up to the election.
"He wants it to show his deal-maker abilities. It's just a big stage."
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump has not asked for a meeting with Putin in the U.S. but he hopes to host the Russian leader to sign a new arms control agreement.
“We're not doing a meeting with Putin in the United States, but at some time we'd love to have Putin come here to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians,” O’Brien said.
A Kremlin spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The State Department announced Friday that the U.S. special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, plans to meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in Vienna on Monday in the next round of negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on an arms control agreement.
After a round of talks in June, Billingslea said the U.S. is "leaving all options on the table" about the future of the treaty, including extending it, but still emphasized the U.S. wants to bring China into a new agreement. Since then, the U.S. and Russia have failed to agree on some basic elements of an agreement, including even defining certain terms, during working level meetings to iron out the technical details, according to a defense official.
It became clear that a basic framework for negotiating the treaty, signed by Trump and Putin, would move the talks along, the official said.
The White House declined to comment on the details of any possible arms deal.
"There is no current planning for a [one-on-one meeting] between President Trump and President Putin," the official said. "We are negotiating on arms control. Hopefully we can make some progress in Vienna next week. Getting ahead of the meetings next week would be premature."
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Some of the president's advisers have argued against a summit with Putin before the election, according to the people familiar with the discussions. The aides are concerned that a summit with Putin would embolden the Russian leader at a time when Moscow is provoking the U.S., including interfering in the 2020 election and possibly offering money to militants in Afghanistan in exchange for killing American troops.
There are also concerns among administration officials that a summit could hurt the president politically because it would revive attacks from his opponents that he's too cozy with Russia, the people familiar with the discussions said. From their perspective, these people said, any potential upside of Trump striking an arms control deal is outweighed by the downside at a time when he's already trailing in the polls.
Trump has held a handful of in-person meetings with Putin since taking office, including a 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, that was widely seen as disastrous for the president. Trump excluded his top aides from the meeting and said afterward that he believed Putin over U.S. intelligence officials on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
He's also spoken frequently with Putin on the phone since taking office, most recently on July 23.
Earlier this year, Putin raised the idea of a meeting between the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to discuss a variety of global issues. But planning for a P5 meeting was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, in May, Trump postponed a Group of 7 summit he had hoped to hold in June or during the summer, also because of the coronavirus. Earlier this week, Trump said he is still interested in hosting the G7 meeting, most likely after the November election, and said he would likely invite Putin.
"I don't know but we invited a number of people to the meeting. I certainly would invite him to the meeting," he said.
Russia was expelled from the G8 in 2014 after annexing the Crimea region in Ukraine. Other members include Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and Canada.
If Trump and Putin meet one on one, a looming question is whether Trump will bring up reports that Russia has offered incentive payments to the Taliban to target American troops in Afghanistan. Trump has called the reports a hoax and downplayed the strength of the intelligence. But during an interview in Prague this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he raised the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans, or for that matter other westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That's what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov," Pompeo said during the Radio Free Europe interview.
One idea recently under consideration is a meeting in New York around the time of the U.N. General Assembly in late September, these people said. The annual summit of world leaders is set to be virtual this year because of the pandemic, though Trump said Thursday that he is considering delivering his address in person.
"I'm thinking about going directly to the U.N. to do the speech," Trump said at a news conference. "I think it's appropriate. If we can do it, I'll do it directly."
The Trump administration has been pursuing a new arms control agreement not only with Russia but also China. Officials said the administration's immediate effort of creating a framework between the U.S. and Russia is not aimed at including China, which has resisted the talks and has a fraction of the nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia have.
Ultimately, the Trump administration still wants to bring China into an agreement, but officials are saying they could extend New START in the interim.
An extension of New START, which can be for up to five years, may include two new Russian weapons systems that Moscow has already unveiled, the official said. An extension of the existing arms control treaty also would give the Trump administration more time to try to get China on board with joining the U.S. and Russia in a new agreement.
If the U.S. and Russia were to reach an agreement to extend New START, they are unlikely to do so for a full five years, two of the people familiar with the discussions said.
The extension of the treaty does not require Senate approval on the U.S. side and can be done by a simple exchange between Trump and Putin.
"This is an easy win for him," a second person familiar with the discussions said of the president. The president is looking for foreign policy wins ahead of the election, one U.S. official said. He had one this week with the announcement that the U.S. brokered a deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Trump unveiled the deal in a hastily arranged Oval Office announcement, and the White House said it would be followed by a more formal ceremony in the weeks ahead.
Since the announcement, White House officials have praised the president and his negotiating skills.
O'Brien wrote in an op-ed article last week that the administration began talks with Russia in June on New START and is "cautiously optimistic" about agreeing on a framework for arms control with Russia and China.
"President Trump and President Vladimir Putin had a cordial call July 23 during which both leaders pledged their best efforts to extend New START and make it even better," O'Brien wrote.
Trump has expressed interest in holding another meeting with Putin for some time, the people familiar with the discussions said.