It hasn't been easy for Donald Trump. All he wanted was to be Vladimir Putin's friend. He just knew that if they could spend some time together they would totally bond, just click, like two people who had known each other all their lives. But Putin spurned him, and like lovelorn fools everywhere, Trump wants most what he cannot have.
In 2013, Trump was excited about meeting Putin on his trip to Russia. "Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?" he tweeted that June. When he got there, the Kremlin sent word that Putin might come to the pageant. "But as his time in Russia wore on, Trump heard nothing else. He became uneasy," write David Corn and Michael Isikoff in their book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. "'Is Putin coming?' he kept asking." But Trump was eventually told that Putin couldn't make it, because of a traffic jam.
It was like your crush saying, "Yeah, I'd love to come to your party, except, um, I've got a ... thing. So maybe some other time."
So now Trump seems to have extended an invitation Putin may find hard to pass up: Come to the White House, and I'll roll out the red carpet.
That's what the Russian government said this week, announcing that in a phone call earlier this month, Trump invited Putin to meet in Washington at his home office. Trump's staff would confirm only that "the two had discussed a bilateral meeting in the 'not-too-distant future' at a number of potential venues, including the White House."
So what does Trump want from Putin? And what does Putin want from Trump?
In a different set of circumstances, we might not spend much time worrying about Russia at all. The flow of goods and services between the two countries is tiny, particularly compared with our major trading partners like China and Canada — less than 1 percent of both our exports and our imports. While we do have a trade deficit with them, it's barely enough for even Trump to worry about. Russia doesn't export its culture around the globe, and as the world's 12th largest economy, it's a mid-range player. In many ways the country a shadow of what it was back when the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought for global dominance; its influence doesn't extend beyond its own region the way it once did.
But Putin does have a way of making trouble — an invasion here, disrupting an election there, the occasional assassination. If he was hoping that helping Trump get elected would produce much in the way of tangible gains, he's probably disappointed. The relationship between the two countries has only gotten worse despite Trump's frequent insistence that it would be great if we got along. Much of that is a result of nearly everyone in the American government — Congress, the foreign policy establishment, sometimes his own aides — going against Trump's apparent wishes. Congress passed new sanctions on Russia last year (Trump reluctantly signed the bill). In December the administration approved the sale of arms to Ukraine, to defend itself from Russian aggression. Along with 20 other countries, we just expelled Russian diplomats to express outrage at Moscow allegedly poisoning a Russian defector in England with a deadly nerve agent.
In short, Trump hasn't delivered for Putin, whatever either one of them might have hoped for. It's partly a result of Trump's inability to overcome the forces pushing for a firmer stance against Russia, but it's also because he just doesn't care enough about all that dreary policy stuff to follow through on his desires. For him, the presidency is personal — he thinks he can talk Kim Jong Un out of his nuclear weapons, and he probably cares far more about whether Vladimir Putin likes him than about the details of the American position toward Russia.
As for Putin, he certainly got some of what he wanted out of his actions in 2016 — Hillary Clinton, whom he despised, is not president, and Western democracy as a whole was discredited by a campaign filled with so much insidious propaganda and the election of such a buffoon. But the last year has shown that Trump is not able to remove sanctions or give Putin anything else he might want, especially if Putin continues to have his enemies murdered in such dramatic ways.
So Trump seems able to deliver Putin only symbolic victories at best. The phone call in which the invitation to the White House was tendered was the one in which Trump congratulated Putin on his election win, despite his national security aides having given him talking points with the words "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" written in all caps. So he knows he has Trump's continued admiration, despite locking up or killing most of the people he thinks are a threat to him.
And a White House visit would confer some status on Putin, as he is received — and, no doubt, fawned over — by the world's most powerful leader. But he may not be able to go home to Moscow with much else.
If all goes well, however, Trump may get what he most wants from Putin: a look deep into his eyes, a comradely hand on a shoulder, and a reassurance that "Yes, Donald. We are friends." For whatever that's worth.