During a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought along a black Labrador. Merkel is famously afraid of dogs following a 1995 incident when she was attacked by one, and Putin wanted to show the leader of Europe’s economic powerhouse who was boss. In his 17 years ruling Russia, few public displays have better illustrated the man’s thuggishness and utter lack of propriety.
When Putin encounters American President Donald Trump for the first time this weekend on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, his intention will be different. With Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and has no illusions about Russia’s authoritarian leader, Putin’s point was to intimidate. Meeting his American counterpart, who has no particular appreciation for liberal democratic values and actually sees things to admire in the Russian system of authoritarian rule, Putin’s objective will be to flatter. This, after all, is what he did way back in December 2015, when, in a Russian-language interview, Putin described the future Republican presidential nominee as literally “colorful.” (Trump, as is his wont, later remarked that Putin called him “brilliant,” which was semantically correct in the sense that “brilliant” can also mean “blindingly garish.”)
Having worked his way up to the status of lieutenant colonel in the KGB, Putin is expertly trained at drawing psychological profiles of people, adept at getting what he wants out of individuals while making them feel important. In this regard, it is hard to think of an easier mark than Donald J. Trump, a man so selfish and attention-starved that nothing less than becoming president of the United States could satiate his bottomless pit of self-absorption. Usually, spies have to spend a great deal of time with their prey, ferreting out details of an individual’s personal life, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses before they can manipulate them into behaving in a way injurious to their country’s interests. But with Trump, everything about this man’s disordered personality and appalling sense of ethics is on full display, and has been on full display, for 40 years.
Playing him like a piano will not be difficult; indeed, Trump is the archetypical narcissist and blowhard that spooks like Putin learn how to work very early in their training process. (One can only hope early reports that National Security Council official and Putin critic Fiona Hill will be in the meeting prove correct.)
So if he once produced a dog to frighten Merkel, what will the Russian president bring along to his bilateral meeting to charm Trump? A scale model of the American president’s proposed border wall? A steak (with ketchup on the side) cooked so well-done it would “rock on the plate?”
Putin is likely to run circles around Trump. For all his boasts about being the world’s best “dealmaker,” Trump is a harmless neophyte next to the Russian president, a man who very likely ordered the bombings of Moscow apartment blocks in 1999 to solidify his hold on power, invaded and occupied (and in the case of Crimea, annexed) two of Russia’s neighbors, and took the unprecedented step of hacking and leaking Democratic Party emails in last year’s American presidential election. Putin is the actual strongman Trump only aspires (and is far too incompetent and impulsive) to be. Stiffing contractors in Atlantic City is peanuts compared to the crimes against humanity Putin has perpetrated.
One much-discussed subject the two men almost certainly won’t broach is Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. To understand why, consider an analogy the pair’s German hosts will particularly understand: For Trump to condemn what Russia did in the 2016 presidential election would be like Milli Vanilli finally owning up to the fact that they weren’t really singing “whatever you do, don’t put the blame on you. Blame it on the rain yeah, yeah.”
That is, Trump wants to hoard the glory of his stunning electoral upset all to himself.
In truth, it came about thanks to the connivance of a hostile foreign power. Of course it’s impossible to gauge just how much Russian hacking and leaking, combined with fake news-peddling and anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda, actually tipped the scales in Trump’s favor. But Trump abhors confronting the idea that his win might owe to anything other than his own brilliance, let alone a country historically at odds with his own. Indeed, it is most likely this desperate need for validation that motivates Trump’s obsession with shutting down the investigation into his campaign’s links to Russia, not a genuine fear that he will be implicated in a vast criminal conspiracy.
The Munich-based musical duo eventually admitted they were lip-syncing frauds. Milli Vanilli, in other words, had more integrity that Donald Trump. Let that sink in.
The person with the most to fear from the Trump-Putin encounter may well be the host of this weekend’s summit, Angela Merkel. Throughout last year’s presidential campaign, Trump attacked the German chancellor by name more than any other world leader, using her as a symbol for everything he hated: charity toward refugees, “globalism,” free trade. He has maintained the antagonism as president, humiliating Merkel during a visit to Washington several months ago by refusing to shake her hand at an Oval Office photo-op and continuing to harangue Germany for not spending enough on defense and maintaining too high a trade surplus. In his dislike for Merkel, Trump has an obvious ally in Putin, who will spend the next few months meddling in this fall’s German parliamentary election with the ultimate aim of unseating the German chancellor, a strong critic of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Having survived her encounter with a black Lab, Merkel now finds herself between a narcissist, a dictator, and a hard place.