One should give credit to Donald Trump for his ability to stand tall and do what he believes is right. Despite the hailstorm of criticism inflicted by the media after the US president’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, he felt confident enough to extend to the Russian leader an invitation to visit the United States in the fall. Unfazed by the backlash, he has a reason to be self-confident, as his approval rating has risen to an all-time high since he took office. Forty-five percent of those surveyed approved of the president's performance, according to the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released on July 22. For comparison, his approval rating was only 36% in July 2017. It sank to as low as 32% in December 2017.
The WSJ/NBC News poll began on the day the summit was held. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans approve of the job the president is doing. Of them, 64% strongly approve of Donald Trump. One can now say with certainty that the attempts to turn him into a lame-duck president have failed.
The more criticism Donald Trump gets from the media, the more his supporters rally behind him, and that’s a solid base. There is nothing to suggest that the Trump-GOP deal is on shaky ground. The president can bank on the backing of the Party’s grassroots, and that’s what’s most important. As Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, explained, “I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. Suffice it to say that for me as a policymaker, what really matters is what we do moving forward.” There is a reason to believe the GOP will do well during the November midterm elections, strengthening the president’s position.
“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump tweeted. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that most Americans do not feel Trump went ‘‘too far’’ in supporting Putin in Helsinki. According to the Federalist, “Americans don’t give a hoot about the so-called Russia collusion.”
As of May, public confidence in Trump’s handling of economic policy had also seen a jump since January (53% in May, 46% in January) according to the Pew Research Center. With Defense Secretary James Mattis and State Secretary Mike Pompeo at the helm, foreign policy has at last been aligned with the goals set by the president.
In late 2017, Donald Trump was in dire straits, suffering one setback after another. Now everything has changed and he can stand his ground and invite the foreign leader he wants to Washington without worrying about what his opponents say.
Defense officials could have easily avoided making any comments about the invitation made to the Russian president, leaving the State Department staff to deal with the issue, but they did state their position. On July 20, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood defended the White House's invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington in the fall. "I think it's a very normal and practical thing," he said.
After the Helsinki meeting, experts started to work on arms-control cooperation. The New START was mentioned as part of the agenda in Finland, but it is still not known if the treaty is to be extended or replaced with something new. Thanks to the summit, the differences over the INF Treaty are being addressed by experts, but the fate of the agreement has still been left hanging. There is a dialog happening over Syria, but nothing has been made public as yet. The unrest in Iraq and the situation in Libya cannot just be ignored. Afghanistan is not in the spotlight, but the escalated fighting in the northern part of the country is an issue of mutual concern. These are the potential areas of cooperation.
The diplomatic row has yet to be settled. If relations are improving, it’s time to fully staff the respective embassies in order to facilitate contacts and to change the environment. The US could refuse to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and then just drop the issue in favor of areas where progress can be made. After all, it’s a European problem. Washington could maintain a close relationship with Ukraine and Georgia, while ceasing its support of their full-fledged membership in NATO, in order to allay Russia’s concerns. Moscow could help Washington make progress on North Korea, including through economic projects in which the US and South Korea could play a role. The administration could also let the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project be decided by Russia and the EU. It does not prevent US LNG from being shipped to Europe, but so far East Asia has been more attractive for American exporters, so why make an issue of it? Russia and the US could join together to work out guidelines for a new European security document to be submitted jointly to the OSCE for consideration. If it goes through, the US president would greatly strengthen his position internally and abroad.
A top-level meeting always provides an impetus for progress in a relationship. The presidents could meet at least three more times this year: at the UN General Assembly session in September; at the meeting President Trump invited President Putin to in the fall; and at the November G20 summit in Argentina.
The relationship is a disaster right now, but there are no irreconcilable differences or fundamental conflicts. The Helsinki event set the stage for diplomacy. President Trump believes that “There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems… but they can ALL be solved!” The public reaction in the United States shows that progress in this relationship can boost the GOP position in Congress. Suppose a major agreement is signed at the summit that Donald Trump is to set up in Washington, and the meeting takes place right before the November midterm elections! The president and his party will see their chances improve. A victory would spur progress in the relationship, paving the way for major agreements that would be a real feather in Trump’s cap during his campaign for a second term.