Hey media, stop reading non-existent signals in Donald Trump's at-the-edge-of-the-chair posture and Vladimir Putin's characteristic slouch. They do not mean anything other than their natural personal habits. Trump normally sits that way as does Putin and in the context of their meeting in Helsinki today it has no body language significance that might betray any insight into who dominates whom.
I understand the media’s need to look for any ridiculous hint to read the nature of the dynamic between the two men. The “eagerness” that the media attributes to Trump because of that posture this morning is on display in all his meetings. And the studied casualness that the media points out in Putin’s posture too is on display routinely. Now, one might analyze their habits in a broad sense to gauge their individual personality traits but they indicate nothing instructive about this particular engagement.
Putin, for instance, comes across as someone who is playing poker with life while Trump as someone who is pawing it. That’s just the way the two men are. Putin, of course, comes across as deeply studied in his demeanor. He is a man who has kept up his guards throughout his adult life because of the profession he first chose as a Russian spy and then as an authoritarian politician.
Trump, on the other hand, has exuded the air of an ever effusive salesman out to make a deal with anyone who comes his way or, at the very least, charm that person. He is spontaneous and unrehearsed in a striking contrast to Putin. None of those personality traits are a virtue or vice in themselves. They are what they are.
Another point that irritates me is this nonsensical narrative that the mere act of the US president sitting down with the Russian president grants the latter enormous global legitimacy that he has been craving for. The idea of a meeting with America’s president as a coveted prize may have been true at some point in the distant past but the rest of the world and their leaders have long moved past that. While America is still a most important engagement for many countries, the days of seeing a meeting with the president and visit to the Oval Office as a reward are well and truly over.
At the time of writing this post, the two had finished their personal meeting lasting over 90 minutes. They were in a working lunch with their respective aides. The visuals from the lunch stood out to me mainly because how bereft it was of any joy, except for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiling. The rest looked dour and even tense. There was nothing on the faces of any of the others to indicate that they were happy to be there.
I am not sure what this engagement might lead to other than affording Trump some rather thin bragging rights back home. Meeting people of consequence, especially the authoritarian type he admires, in ostentatious settings is Trump’s thing. This meeting satisfied that need. Add to that the fact they met without any aides for over 90 minutes may have some element of Trump’s much speculated vulnerabilities to Putin’s machinations because of some past indiscretions.
One recurring media theme has been how Putin would emerge a winner irrespective of everything is baffling for me. From all available accounts Putin does not seem like the kind a man who needs reaffirmation of his delusions of grandeur. Even in terms of something as trivial as personal wealth, there have been serious claims to peg Putin’s wealth anywhere between $40 billion and $200 billion. He, of course, derides such claims but it is conceivable he is personally rich and that even at the lowest end of that spectrum he is worth at least four times Trump. So when people talk about a meeting with Trump giving Putin a sense of vindication they are mostly talking non-sense.
Even in terms of the sheer raw and, by many accounts, cruel and brutal power, Putin really lords it over his country unlike Trump.
I see the meeting as weird only from the standpoint of what Trump is facing at home over the Russia investigation. Just days before the meeting his own Justice Department came out with the most specific indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials for their role in meddling in the 2016 election. Normally, such an indictment would have instantly torpedoed a meeting between the two leaders. That it did not, shows that we live in weird times.