DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All eyes this morning are on Helsinki, Finland, where President Trump has been meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we are waiting for a press briefing from the two presidents that could be happening at any moment now. We're monitoring the events at the presidential palace in Helsinki. We have a team of people covering this, and we'll have some analysis and go to perhaps some of that press conference for you if it does take place in the next few moments.
I want to turn first to NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim, who is in Helsinki in the Presidential Palace. Good morning, Lucian.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Looks like just from the television screens I'm watching, there's been some drama there already ahead of this press conference. Like, we saw someone being dragged out of the room. Can you tell us what's going on?
KIM: Well, I'm not exactly in the hall where the press conference will take place. But I've been seeing it on the screens as well. What we've been seeing are what looks like two security guards in dark suits carrying out a man, an elderly man. It looked like he was holding up some kind of sign. But since we're not getting a lot of sound out of there, we still don't know exactly what he was trying to do. But he certainly looked like a protester.
GREENE: Would that make sense? I mean, have there been protests in Helsinki in the lead-up to this summit?
KIM: Yes. Actually, yesterday, there was a smaller protest, at least compared to the ones that we saw in the U.K. - several hundred people here. People I talked to, they said they weren't so much demonstrating against the summit as much as trying to bring messages to the two presidents. Yesterday LGBT activists projected a message also actually on the wall of the presidential palace where the summit's taking place reminding people of the human rights situation in Chechnya, a region of Russia.
GREENE: And it looks like now we have some of the senior staff from both presidents who are walking out of a room and into the larger palace area where this press conference is going to happen. So we really could be minutes away here. We saw the first lady, Melania Trump, come into the room. Set the scene for us if you can. It looks like there are flags of both countries sort of intermingled behind lecterns there.
KIM: That's right. It's a big hall with the Russian and American flags lined up behind the lecterns. The leader - the one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin actually took place in the so-called Gothic Hall of the Presidential Palace. And what's even funnier is that the lunch took place in the Hall of Mirrors, which is quite funny considering what people are saying about this summit.
GREENE: What do you mean?
KIM: Well, about, you know, what will they actually talk about? How much of this is actually going to result in any concrete results? How much of it - is it just for show?
GREENE: Stand by for us, Lucian Kim, if you can. I want to come back to you as we're monitoring this. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who's also watching all of these events from Washington - and, Scott, I just step back and think about this. We have the flags of Russia and the United States. And we should say President Trump and President Putin are coming to the lecterns now. We might go to this in just a moment. But, I mean, the flags of these two countries - one country has been accused of meddling in an election in the other country. I mean, there are incredible tensions and an incredible moment here but two leaders who seem to want to portray that they're getting along.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It does seem, David, as if we've stepped inside some sort of hall of mirrors today. The president tweeted as he was heading to this summit that U.S.-Russia relations were at an all-time low. And he said that was the fault of foolishness and stupidity on the part of the United States ignoring any malign activity by Moscow, whether we're talking about the illegal annexation of Crimea or the murder of an ex-Russian spy in the U.K., the downing of a civilian airliner, not to mention the interference in the U.S. presidential election. But the president is now standing alongside President Putin, and they're going to tell us what they talked about during their two-hour private meeting as well as that expanded meeting with the president's aides that took place in the aptly named Hall of Mirrors.
GREENE: We hope that they're going to tell us what they talked about. You and I are journalists. We want full transparency. We want to know everything. But I'm not convinced we're going to know everything. I guess the big question was whether President Trump was going to follow through on what he said last week, that he was going to directly challenge or at least bring up the accusations against Russia in terms of meddling in the United States election, which - if that did take place, I mean, that has to be the headline here depending on what was said and what took place in that room.
HORSLEY: Well, maybe because let's remember; the president has raised this at previous meetings with Vladimir Putin both in Germany last year at the G-20 summit and then in Vietnam at the APEC summit. Both times Vladimir Putin denied any Russian role in the U.S. election. And the president more or less seemed to accept that at face value. And even last week, when he was talking to reporters, he said, you know, what am I supposed to do? There's only so much I can say except don't do it again. He also said he didn't expect any sort of "Perry Mason" moment with Vladimir Putin suddenly spilling his guts and saying, oh, you got me; we did it; we confess.
GREENE: You and I have both covered a lot of summits and a lot of events like this. I feel like President Trump's brand of diplomacy lends itself to a level of unpredictability that is not something we're so used to in covering events that are - that - you know, like this that are often largely staged.
HORSLEY: He said during the campaign that he thought there was an advantage - a strategic advantage in being unpredictable. There's certainly a show business advantage in being unpredictable. And I guess he's delivered on what he advertised. He has been a very unpredictable president. The only thing I guess you can predict is that he's going to do something unpredictable.
GREENE: Yeah, exactly. Just so our listeners realize, we're looking at the two presidents right now. They've just walked into a room in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. There are American flags and flags of the Russian Federation behind them. President Putin has begun speaking. He's delivering opening remarks in Russian. And we're anticipating that President Trump will be speaking shortly. And we'll bring some of his remarks to you. So, Scott Horsley, what else would we have expected to come up in this meeting?
HORSLEY: Well, the president raised a list of issues that he wanted to talk about, including Russia's role in Syria. He talked about discussing Ukraine and the ongoing activities of Russia there. He talked about wanting to address arms control. He was also asked if, for example, the United States might be prepared to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, although national security adviser John Bolton has said that's not the position of the United States.
The president was noncommittal on that. He sort of left the door open. And we remember that he suggested that maybe Crimea should belong to Russia because a lot of people in Crimea speak Russian. He also said he was open to discussing a halt to U.S. joint military exercises in the Baltic states, which is something that Moscow would certainly like to see.
And we remember that the president granted a similar concession to North Korea after his meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month. He said that the U.S. would stop having what he called provocative war games with South Korea, again sort of adopting the language and meeting a desire of North Korea's leader.
GREENE: A couple of things you're talking about. I mean, recognizing Russia having control of Crimea would be extraordinary for - I mean, when much of the world does not recognize that at all. And also, you know, not taking part in military exercises in the Baltics, NATO countries on Russia's doorstep would be extraordinary as well. Let's just listen to a little bit of Vladimir Putin here. I think we have some - his interpreter. And this is a bit from the Russian president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
GREENE: OK, I guess we actually don't have an interpreter there. I want to turn briefly to Richard Fontaine, who's also with us. He's president of the Center for a New American Security, a diplomatic veteran. And he was on the national security council in the State Department under President George W. Bush. Thanks for joining us this morning.
RICHARD FONTAINE: Oh, thanks for having me.
GREENE: Can you help me understand? You have written that President Trump's policies towards Russia have been incredibly aggressive in many ways, but yet he seems to take a real soft touch and want to develop a personal rapport with this president. Is that a diplomatic approach that might be taught, like, in a school of foreign policy? Is there a way you could make sense of that for us?
FONTAINE: It's not taught in the schools that I went to. It's the fundamental contradiction in the Trump administration's policy toward Russia. On the one hand, the underlying policy has been quite firm. They have kicked diplomats out of the United States and closed consulates. They have armed the Ukrainians fighting against Russians in their east. They have sanctioned oligarchs in Russia. They've done a number of things.
And yet the president very rarely speaks about Putin's transgressions and when asked about him often expresses the hope that everyone can get along, and that he has to throw his hands up in the air and ask Putin if he did anything bad. And if Putin says no, then there's not much more he can do about it. So there's a real disconnect between the president's words and the underlying policy.
GREENE: We just have a few seconds left, but what would make this a successful summit for President Donald Trump?
FONTAINE: Well, a successful summit for President Donald Trump would be one that's successful I think for the country, which would mean no concessions without getting something equal or bigger in return, no suspension of exercises, no recognition of Crimea, none of these kinds of things. And if he could extract some commitments from Vladimir Putin in return with respect to cyber meddling or anything else in (unintelligible) then that would be a step forward.
GREENE: OK, Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, and also speaking to our White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And we are watching the two presidents just getting a press conference underway in Helsinki, Finland. And you can be following all the events from Helsinki from us here at NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.