President Donald Trump confirmed on Thursday his interest in a July meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reigniting alarm over Trump's desire to befriend a Russian leader widely considered a menace to the U.S. and Europe.
"We're looking at the possibility," Trump told reporters when asked whether he's planning to meet with Putin next month.
In a sign of the seriousness of the planning, however, a White House spokesman also said Thursday that national security adviser John Bolton will visit Moscow next week to prepare for a meeting with Putin. A source familiar with the discussions said Trump will likely sit down with Putin just before or after an annual NATO summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, and that Bolton would discuss possible meeting sites with Russian officials.
A summer summit with Putin would again bring the U.S. president face-to-face with the man intelligence officials blame for meddling in the 2016 election. The Russian also stands accused of approving the attempted murder with nerve agent of a former Russian spy in Great Britain earlier this year, and backs Syrian leader Bashar Assad, whose forces Trump has twice struck as punishment for their use of chemical weapons.
Russia experts say that Putin would see a meeting with Trump as a chance to shed western sanctions imposed over his aggression in Ukraine and U.S. election interference.
"This is really what Putin sees as the benefit of the 2016 presidential election. He is out of isolation. He is an equal," said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Russia and the United States will be seen as equals at the summit and that is exactly what President Putin desires."