19 July 2017
Even the most cautious headline – ‘previously undisclosed meeting’ – describing the informal conversation between the American and Russian leaders during the dinner for the G20 summiteers and their spouses in early July suggests that it was in some way extraordinary. Headlines describing it as ‘secret’ or ‘private’ hint at this more strongly. The first point to be made about this rumpus is that Trump and Putin do not appear to have sneaked away from the dinner to another room but to have held their conversation at the dinner table in full view of the other guests. To this extent, therefore, it was hardly a secret meeting and bilateral encounters of this sort are, in any case, a common and valuable feature of such multilateral summitry. The second point is that the term ‘meeting’ itself usually implies an encounter that is arranged beforehand and is in some degree detached – in venue and format – from its immediate surroundings. While allowing for the fact that it might well have been pre-arranged, the second Trump-Putin encounter in Hamburg was, therefore, a ‘meeting’ only in the loosest sense of the term. I conclude from this that sensationalist descriptions of it play into the Trump narrative of the ‘fake news’ produced by his enemies in the mainstream media. Having said this, the Trump-Putin conversation has stimulated righteous criticism in the United States and on the part of its friends because what was said was (apparently) out of earshot of the other guests and to that extent was secret; because the White House only acknowledged it after the news was leaked; and above all – the diplomat’s nightmare – because the only interpreter employed was a Russian and there is no American record of what was said. (The best account of this affair in today’s press is that in the Washington Post.). Donald Trump is not, of course, the only arrogant amateur who thinks he can wing it. The UK has its own in its leader in the Brexit negotiations, David Davis, Secretary of State for Jumping off Cliffs without a Parachute, not to mention Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Jumping off Foreign and Commonwealth Cliffs without a Parachute, and Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade in Invisible Parachutes.