Reagan aide on the Trump-Putin Summit: Here is the one crucial thing to focus on before anything else

For all the rhetoric about how – and more importantly, why -- President Trump praises Putin but criticizes allies, we now have a real situation on our hands:  the United States government has formally accused agents of the Russian government of seeking to interfere with our 2016 presidential election.  As if the stakes were not high enough to begin with, the importance of the Trump-Putin Summit has increased exponentially. 

If there is one thing the president and his aides should be working on between rounds of golf at his club in Scotland, it is exactly how the president will look and what he will say on the first handshake with Putin in Helsinki.  This is not a reunion of frat buddies or old friends.  This is a meeting of two powerful, competitive leaders at a time of great tension in the relationship between their nations, caused by one seeking to undermine the very foundation of the other’s form of government.  

I was directly involved in the planning and execution of all five of Ronald Reagan’s Summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev (Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, Moscow and New York) and in all the planning we did for the first Summit, we failed to recommend what the president should say on the first handshake with Gorbachev.  We should have known how closely the press would pay attention to the two leaders’ first in-person words to each other, and we were remiss in not suggesting some things to the president to say that would seize the upper hand in the battle for attention.  As usual, Reagan was good mannered and let Gorbachev speak first, and as a result, the charismatic and media-savvy Gorbachev won the initial PR battle.  Reagan eventually recovered, but only after considerable scrambling on the part of White House aides. 

When Trump first meets Putin, then, smiles and vigorous handshakes are inappropriate.  A stern – even slightly angry expression – which is the norm for Donald Trump, and a firm, but quick handshake, would immediately set the right tone.  No pats on the back, indeed, no physical contact other than a handshake.  The body language should say that the United States knows what Russia did (and is still doing), we’re angry about it and it will not be tolerated.

From an opening words standpoint, the president should speak first and know exactly what he is going to say.

From an opening words standpoint, the president should speak first and know exactly what he is going to say.  The press and world at large will literally be hanging on what is said and it would behoove the president to have the right words ready.  Here’s a couple of suggestions:

1) “Mr. President (NOT Vladimir), we meet at a serious time.  I do not like what your country tried to do to ours.  We have lots to discuss.  Let’s get to it.”

2) Mr. President, there were those in my country who did not want this meeting to take place.  But there are some deeply disturbing issues between us that cannot be ignored.” 

Then walk off expressionless to the meeting room.

What the president wants (and I would argue, needs) is to conduct himself in a way that causes reporters to write: “In look and words, US President Donald J. Trump, made it plain to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was angry about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, and that he would put the issue to Putin directly at their Summit in Helsinki…”

Anything less will leave the president vulnerable to accusations of being too soft on Putin, and even his base does not like that.

The Trump team should not make the same mistake we did in Reagan’s first summit with Gorbachev. Especially in the social media, 24-hour, instant-news world, there will not be a second chance for Trump to make a first impression. 

Mark D. Weinberg is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.” He served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House, and as Director of Public Affairs in former President Reagan’s office.  Weinberg currently is a communications consultant.