A notable moment for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was her presentation of a “reset” button (pictured above) to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2009. In February 2017, President Trump rightly criticized Clinton for the reset, which came the year after Vladimir Putin had invaded the country of Georgia and seized two of the nation’s provinces, although his criticism seemed to concentrate more on style than substance.
“Hillary Clinton did a reset, remember, with the stupid plastic button that made us all look like a bunch of jerks?” Trump said in the Washington Examiner. “[Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov] looked at her like, ‘what the hell is she doing with that cheap plastic button?’”
Now, eight years later, President Trump is attempting his own reset with Russia. Less than a year after Putin’s hackers attempted to influence the American presidential election and succeeded in penetrating voter databases in at least 39 states, Donald Trump appears to be ready to forgive and forget.
After a rousingly strong speech in Poland in which he criticized the Russian president for “destabilizing” Europe and the Middle East, two days later Trump seemed to make a 180 degree turn after a private meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany.
The two men seemed to hit it off in Hamburg. An hour into the 30-minute meeting, First Lady Melania Trump was sent in to get the two billionaire world leaders to break it up. Despite the First Lady’s efforts, the men talked for another hour and 15 minutes before moving along to the next items on their respective schedules.
When President Trump emerged from his conversation with Putin, he was far less critical of Russia than he had been a few days earlier. Immediately after the meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a press conference that, with respect to Syria, “by and large, our objectives are exactly the same” as Russia, despite the fact that Trump has just called Russia’s influence “destabilizing.” Russia intervened to support the Assad regime while the US position is still that “there will be a transition away from the Assad family.”
With respect to Russian interference in the American presidential election, Tillerson said, “The president pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”
“The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward,” Tillerson continued, “and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of non-interference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process as well as those of other countries. So, more work to be done on that regard.”
The work must have been quick and productive because today President Trump said, “It is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.” Shockingly, the president even said that he and Putin “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit,” a move that Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said was “akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.’”
Trump’s statements translate to an “aw, shucks, I just can’t stay mad at you” moment in which he proposes to put the proverbial fox on guard duty at the henhouse. In addition to meddling with the 2016 elections, Russia is the state actor that is widely suspected of cyberattacks on US energy companies that were apparently occurring even as the men talked in Hamburg.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not the only US officials that have fallen prey to the Putin’s apparently considerable charm and personal magnetism. In 2001, George W. Bush famously described the man he nicknamed “Pootie-Poot” as “very straightforward and trustworthy.”
Barack Obama seemed to be more honest with Putin than with his own constituents. In March 2012, President Obama told then-Russian President and Putin lackey Dmitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the US election that year. A few months later, Obama pooh-poohed Mitt Romney’s statement that Russia was a “geopolitical foe.” In a presidential debate, Obama poked fun at Romney saying, “The 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
Putin played them all for fools.
George W. Bush closed out his presidency with the Russian invasion of Georgia, a US ally. Five years after Hillary Clinton’s reset and two years after Obama claimed the Cold War was over, Russia annexed Crimea, a territory of the Ukraine, and then launched into a shooting war with Ukraine itself. Obama’s administration ended with Russia meddling in the core institution of American democracy, the presidential election.
The previous resets with Putin’s Russia have been disappointments. Vladimir Putin will undoubtedly take advantage of President Trump’s naiveté as well. The Russian president has shown himself to be a man who sees an outstretched hand as a sign of weakness and who responds only to strength.
“A productive conversation would be one where President Trump clearly communicates to Putin that the US won’t be quick to offer concessions, but to the contrary, that Trump is going to be a tough negotiator, one who Putin feels is committed to protecting American interests and values, and someone who he will back his talk with action, not just as a one-off, but on a consistent basis,” Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia’s foreign policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, advised in Business Insider before the meeting.
Unfortunately, the conciliatory Trump, not the tough negotiator, is the man who met with Putin. Trump didn’t bring a cheap, plastic reset button, but he may as well have.