Politics & Government

Washington may criticize but Trump’s meeting with Putin is just what his voters want

Terry Roland, a longtime Republican activist who volunteered for Donald Trump’s campaign in west Tennessee, knows Washington’s chattering class is criticizing the president’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. But he dismisses the disapproval.

“It doesn’t make any difference what the president does, they ain’t gonna like,” said Roland, 57, a member of the Shelby County, Tenn. Board of Commissioners. “But it’s a good thing they (Trump and Putin) have dialogue. They should be able to talk. You don’t get anywhere without talking.”

The face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin Monday in Helskinki, Finland, may be controversial to some but not the voters who elected him.

They say they admire Trump for what they think will be his strategy to show Putin he’s the boss in their relationship. They praise him for a successful meeting with another autocratic leader, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. And they believe Trump has been hurt by the slow and ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“We should be reaching out to other countries,” said Mark Anthony Jones, a Trump supporter in the Kansas City area and chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party in Missouri. “What could come out of this is the world sees a working relationship between two major countries and leaders. Why can’t we work together on some problems?”

Trump flew to Helsinki Sunday as the last stop of a week-long trip to Europe — following a NATO meeting in Brussels and a visit to the United Kingdom — in which he espoused the “America First” foreign policy strategy his supporters admire.

The meeting between Trump and Putin raised concerns from the start because it comes amid Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump or his aides worked with Russia to steer the election to Trump. And it comes on the heels of last week’s NATO meeting, where Trump once again raised the ire of allies by accusing them of failing to contribute more to the organization, which was designed to help the West counter Russia militarily.

But after Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers Friday on charges they hacked Democrats’ computers during the campaign, Trump supporters say there’s even more of a reason for Trump to meet with Putin.

“I think it’s a good thing to meet. I do believe in meetings,” Trump said in a CBS interview Saturday. “I believe that having a meeting with Chairman Kim was a good thing. I think having meetings with the president of China was a very good thing. I believe it’s really good. So having meetings with Russia, China, North Korea, I believe in it. Nothing bad is going to come out of it, and maybe some good will come out.”

Trump and Putin met one-on-one with only interpreters present to discuss a series of national security issues, including the civil war in Syria in which the United States supports rebel groups and Russia supports the government of President Bashar Assad. Trump has said he would raise with Putin the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. “I’ll talk to him about everything,” he said. But the meeting is not expected to produce any specific agreements.

“Putin has calmed down a lot because he fears Trump,” said Rion Choate, 66, a longtime Trump supporter from North Carolina who volunteered on the campaign for 18 months and is now seeking an ambassadorship.

Choate said he would always choose to hop on an airplane and meet someone face to face in his business as an investment banker.

“If you meet face-to-face and have eye contact, you have a much better chance of a positive return,” he said. “It’s always important to meet with your adversary. If you can get different parties around the table and look eye to eye it’s terrific.”

Democratic leaders called on Trump to cancel the meeting following Friday’s indictments while other Republicans, including Trump voters, said the president should be willing to raise the election interference at the meeting. “If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Trump critic.

The White House said the meeting would proceed as planned. It will mark the first formal summit by the two leaders who met at two international gatherings last year — the G20 in July and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in November.

“It is not surprising that President Trump is eager to meet with Vladimir Putin again, as he has a disturbing affinity for authoritarian figures,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for his open admiration for Putin, for calling to congratulate Putin on what was widely considered his sham election and for inviting him to the White House for a meeting.

He has suggested Crimea, a territory in Ukraine annexed by Russia, is now part of Russia, and that Russia should be invited to rejoin the G7, the gathering of the globe’s largest economies.

And he has repeatedly questioned — as recently as last month — the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s interfered in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton..

Trump supporters — like him — say Mueller should end his investigation after a year without revealing any proof of collusion. Roland, who like Trump calls the investigation a “witch hunt,” thinks Mueller should investigate Clinton’s ties to Russia instead.

In February, Mueller also indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies on charges that they used social media and digital ads to support Trump and oppose Clinton. But in February, just like Friday, Justice officials said they are not accusing any Americans of committing crimes involving the campaign.

Putin denies interfering in the election, saying recently that patriotic Russian hackers may have engaged in cyber security attacks against the United States and other countries on their own.

The Trump administration has sanctioned Russia for its actions in Crimea, election meddling and overall aggression, sent lethal aid to Ukraine and expelled Russian diplomats. Yet still Trump has shied from speaking ill of Putin.

Even Al Cardenas, former chairman of the American Conservative Union and Florida Republican Party who said he voted for Trump reluctantly, said he supports the Putin meeting, especially following Friday’s indictments. “Yesterday’s indictments were a timely addition to the prospective agenda ... and lends additional evidence to the importance of the meeting.” he said.

But Cardenas said he hopes Trump doesn’t lavish praise on the Russian leader as he has done in the past. “Telling a head of state not to meet with another head of state is foolish,” he said.

The meeting will come only weeks after Trump participated in a summit with Kim in Singapore, triumphantly proclaiming that North Korea had agreed to nuclear disarmament, though few details were released about the plan.

“I do think its a incredible first step, to get the threat off the plate,” Jones said. “Right this moment we don’t have threat of North Korea nukes.”

U.S. intelligence officials have accused North Korea of pushing ahead with its nuclear program. No matter, Trump supporters are proud he took the meeting and made some progress — something they hope he can repeat with Putin.

“He did something that presidents for years haven’t done,” said Brian Bledsoe, 38, a Dallas area truck driver who served as a delegate to the GOP convention in Texas.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01