Amid Trump’s silence, Russia creeps into first foreign trip

Trump’s first foreign trip as president
Trump attended the G7 summit in Italy Friday, May 26, 2017. It was the last leg of his first trip overseas as POTUS. Here he is pictured with the six other members of G7.

On a foreign swing President Donald Trump and his aides hoped would distance him from a storm of Russia controversy, he has been unable to escape the cloud of suspicion swirling around him and his administration.

As Trump arrived in this otherwise tranquil town on the Sicilian coast for the G7 summit, the end of his first foreign trip has only reignited questions about his willingness to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin — dampening his first group talks with European leaders.

The drumbeat of revelations surrounding his campaign’s alleged ties to Moscow has only grown louder as Trump crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East, weighing on his discussions with European leaders, who, deeply skeptical of Trump’s intentions, have found little solace during their interactions with the new U.S. president.

Trump declined to articulate support for NATO’s collective defense provisions during remarks at the alliance’s headquarters Thursday, and his aides signaled he may not be committed to upholding a sanctions regime on Moscow as punishment for its actions in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the FBI’s criminal probe into Russia’s election meddling pierced Trump’s inner circle for the first time on Thursday. Officials briefed on the probe said the bureau’s investigation was increasingly touching on the role Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, played on Trump’s presidential campaign and his contacts with Russian officials.

It amounted to the first real tensions on Trump’s foreign trip, which had proceeded largely on-script during stops in the Middle East and the Vatican.

Ahead of his arrival in Brussels Thursday, Trump operated largely outside the tempest of Russia controversy that has continued to swell back in Washington. Even his Twitter feed — which he ordinarily uses to lash out at Russia stories — has remained staid during his trip abroad.

But in Europe, anxieties about Trump run far deeper. At the G7 — which for the third year straight has excluded Russia as the eighth participant — those worries are at their sharpest relief.

Leaders here remain unsure of what precisely Trump will do if Russia continues its territorial grabs in Eastern Europe. And they are skeptical he’ll confront Moscow’s continued meddling in Western elections, given Russian hackers took the same steps in last year’s U.S. presidential election to sway the vote in Trump’s favor. Trump has remained extremely sensitive to assumptions that Russia’s actions handed him the White House.

Following his meeting with Trump, European Council President Donald Tusk on Thursday signaled his unease at the lack of a united approach to Russia.

“I am not 100 percent sure that we can say today — we, meaning Mr. President Trump and myself — that we have a common opinion about Russia,” Tusk told reporters at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Trump has also not signaled whether he will maintain sanctions slapped on Russia by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, for those election meddling attempts. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn said Trump had yet to formulate a plan.

“I think the President is looking at it,” Cohn said. “Right now, we don’t have a position.”

Speaking at NATO headquarters Thursday, Trump did little to bolster his counterparts’ confidence. He used a speech at the unveiling of a 9/11 memorial — marking the only time the alliance’s mutual defense pledge has been invoked — to chastise member states for not meeting their financial commitments to the alliance, remarks that drew visible derision and unease from other leaders who stood just a few feet away.

He did not reassure allies that his administration would continue to abide by NATO’s Article 5 provision that ensures all members of the alliance will jump to the defense of any one member that comes under attack. The omission was stark, given Trump’s wavering on the commitment during the campaign trail and his otherwise sharp focus on other countries boosting their defense expenditures.

Trump’s aides sought to downplay the absence.

“To have to reaffirm something by the very nature of being here and speaking at a ceremony about it is almost laughable,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

Trump was hoping to escape the increasingly gloomy specter of the federal probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia as he departed on his first foreign trip last Friday. But as Air Force One climbed further away from Washington, it became clear the widening probe and suspicions of Russian influence would continue to dog him overseas.

While Trump and his aides huddled on Air Force One on the flight to Saudi Arabia to iron out the final preparations for his first foreign trip, the headlines blared: “Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Eased Pressure,” wrote The New York Times; CNN reported, “Russian officials bragged they could use Flynn to influence Trump”; and The Washington Post offered, “White House adviser is a person of interest in Russia probe.”

The last of those three would bear itself out by the end of the week, taking a more ominous form with the revelation that the adviser the FBI is now taking a closer look at is, in fact, one of the president’s top advisers, his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Kushner’s multiple roles in Trump’s campaign and his contacts with Russian officials adds a new, increasingly personal dynamic to the federal probe for Trump: touching not only a member of his senior White House staff for the first time since Flynn was fired, but also a member of his family.

News that the federal probe had now reached Trump’s inner circle broke soon after Trump touched down in Sicily, where on Friday he huddled with the leaders of six of the world’s most powerful countries. Once again, the President’s associates’ contacts with Russian officials hung like a dark cloud over his powerhouse diplomatic efforts — especially at this summit, where discussion of Russian actions will take center stage.

This year’s G7 comes after a year of Russian actions around the globe that have made world leaders increasingly wary of Moscow.

Russia has continued to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and in recent months alone it has brazenly interfered in U.S. and French presidential elections.

While Trump last month said that U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low,” he has once again veered back toward attempts at smoothing relations with Russia.

He hosted the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office earlier this month, and — in what his surrogates have described as a U.S. overture to improving relations — he shared highly classified information obtained by Israel, which the key U.S. ally did not want disseminated more widely.

That revelation will still be fresh in the minds of Trump’s G7 counterparts as they seek to make Trump see the Russian threat in a more clear-eyed manner. Two of those six leaders are members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing agreement with the United States.