When President Trump heads to the United Kingdom in July, he may also make a side visit with one of Europe's most controversial heads of state. That's right — diplomatic sources have all but confirmed Trump will meet with Vladimir Putin.
The White House has yet to issue any official word on the potential tête-à-tête between the two world leaders. According to an unnamed source cited by CNN, the Trump team originally wanted the meeting to occur in Washington, D.C., but Putin refused, so they're opting for a neutral location. Vienna is reportedly a possibility.
It would not be the first in-person introduction between Trump and Putin. They met briefly during 2017's Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Now, as The Hill reported, National Security Adviser John Bolton is heading to Moscow "to discuss a potential meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin," according to his spokesman, Garrett Marquis. If the meeting — which would reportedly happen sometime in mid-July — does take place, that would mark the first official visit between the two leaders.
Putin has been in power in Russia long enough to have met Trump's three Oval Office predecessors. After his meeting in Moscow with Putin in 2000, President Clinton expressed optimism that the newly elected leader could build "a prosperous, strong Russia, while preserving freedom and pluralism and the rule of law." Shortly thereafter, President Bush met Putin in 2001 and had similarly positive things to say. As reported at the time by ABC News, Bush described Putin as "an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values."
President Obama seemed likewise impressed by Putin following his first meeting with the Russian in 2009. Politico reports that during a breakfast meeting at the then-prime minister's country home, Obama commended Putin on the "extraordinary work" he'd done for Russia.
Of course, eventually all of them changed their tune. In a 2014 interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, Bush said that Putin "changed" after rising oil prices made Russia economically more of a power player. "I think it emboldened him to follow in his game that pretty much zero-sum, you know, I win and you lose and vice versa," Bush told Tapper.
Obama dubbed his overture to improving America's relationship with Russia as a "reset." In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even gifted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a big red "reset" button. But by the end of Obama's second term, Putin had invaded and annexed Crimea, aided Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian dictator's civil war, and interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Obama left office in 2016 having just implemented new (if narrow) sanctions on Russia, as well as kicked off the beginning phase of a cyberattack strategy against the Kremlin. According to The Washington Post, it will be within Trump's discretion to carry the program forward or abandon it. Still, one former Obama official told The Post that when it came to Russia, “I feel like we sort of choked.”
Trump has been the most vocally magnanimous toward Putin. Even as U.S. intelligence agencies affirmed Russian interference in the presidential election, Trump continued to defend and shield Putin. And even after his own administration approved sanctions against Putin in April, Trump announced he would decline to impose them. That's perhaps not surprising, considering Trump was tweeting hopes of making Putin his bestie back in 2013.
Putin has outmaneuvered the past three presidents, managing to invade sovereign countries with impunity on both Bush's and Obama's watch. Given that and Trump's public fondness for Putin, it seems unlikely their July meeting will result in much pressure on the Russian president.