Donald Trump wanted his July 2018 meeting in Helsinki with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to evoke memories of the momentous encounters that took place in the 1980s between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those arms control summits had yielded the kind of iconic imagery that Trump loved: strong, serious men meeting in distant places to hash out the great issues of the day. What better way, in Trump’s view, to showcase his prowess at the art of the deal?
That was the kind of show Trump wanted to put on in Helsinki. What emerged instead was an altogether different sort of spectacle.
By the time of the meeting, I had spent just over a year serving in the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Like everyone else who worked in the White House, I had, by then, learned a great deal about Trump’s idiosyncrasies. We all knew, for instance, that Trump rarely read the detailed briefing materials his staff prepared for him and that in meetings or calls with other leaders, he could never stick to an agreed-on script or his cabinet members’ recommendations. This had proved to be a major liability during those conversations, since it often seemed to his foreign counterparts as though Trump was hearing about the issues on the agenda for the first time.