WASHINGTON – The whole world will be watching Friday when President Trump holds his first formal meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
We have tons of questions about the highly-anticipated private conference on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany – especially in light of ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump associates were somehow involved.
Here are six things we're watching:
Will Trump bring up the election?
While the president himself has cast doubts on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats close to Trump opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump aides have not ruled out the possibility that he could bring up the investigations currently conducted by congressional committees and a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department.
Trump has on rare occasions acknowledged that Russia was likely behind the hacking campaign, but said Thursday in Poland that "nobody really knows for sure" what happened – and he has never condemned Moscow for its actions. How will he handle the issue with Putin? With Germany, France and other European governments also accusing Russia of attempting to interfere in their own elections, the pressure is on Trump to be more assertive.
Will Trump seek to reduce sanctions?
Given Trump's kind words for Putin in the past – calling him a "strong leader" – lawmakers in both parties are concerned that he may try to ease or even end sanctions on Russia over its military activities in neighboring Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea region of that country. What's more, after the election, President Obama in December sanctioned Russian intelligence officials, expelled 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies and shut down two Russian facilities in the United States.
There have been multiple news reports that the Trump team has explored ways to roll back some of these punitive measures. Yet Trump in his Poland speech Thursday gave some clues he might not go down that path so easily: "We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran."
Last month, as rumors of a Trump-Putin meeting percolated, the Senate voted 98-2 on legislation that would require congressional review of any move by the president to remove Russian sanctions.
What is the plan for Syria?
Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war – and backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – has caused friction with the United States and the Trump administration. U.S. officials criticized the Russians for failing to stop a chemical weapons attack on rebels by the Assad government. Putin criticized the United States for shooting down a Syrian warplane.
While both countries say they want to battle encroachment by the Islamic State, some U.S. officials say Russia is more interested in defeating Assad opponents under the guise of attacking terrorists.
Will the two leaders remain at odds on North Korea?
Russia blocked a U.S.-backed resolution before the United Nations calling for "significant measures" in response to North Korea's test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Trump, meanwhile, has taken a tougher line on North Korea, on Thursday going so far as to say "we have some pretty severe things we’re thinking about" in response to the test.
Trump is also intent on pressuring China to rein in its neighbor Pyongyang. However, Russia and China are major trading partners, so that is likely to be another issue where Trump and Putin diverge.
Will NATO tensions continue?
Putin has criticized expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to countries close to Russia's border, seeing it as a threat to Russian influence in the region. NATO says Putin is trying to destabilize its members by interfering with their elections, yet the alliance is also wary of Trump after he declined to specifically endorse the organization's Article 5 commitment of mutual defense while in Europe six weeks ago. (Trump did endorse the commitment that an attack on one member country is an attack on all during a Thursday speech in Poland, but also demanded that NATO members spend more for mutual defense.)
Trump's trip reflects these concerns. While in Poland, a rival of Russia, Trump met with Central and Eastern European allies who are wary of Russian designs in the region.
What will the body language say?
Trump took major heat over photos in May showing him laughing and joking with visiting Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. Will he and Putin look like they are getting along? Will there be obvious tension? What kind of handshake will there be? Will hugging be involved?
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