Trump reaches for big moment with Putin

By JONATHAN LEMIRE and JILL COLVIN
President Donald Trump next heads to Helsinki to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin

A face-to-face sitdown with a long-feared foe. Endless media hype. Huge ratings.

Although US President Donald Trump has met with Russia's Vladimir Putin twice before, he is eager to recreate in Finland the heady experience that he had last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore: a summit that became a mass media event complete with powerful presidential images.

Trump boasted to confidants about the number of cameras in Singapore, claiming it dwarfed coverage of the Oscars, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Though Trump originally expressed concern that Helsinki was not glamorous enough and favoured hosting Putin at the White House, the president was reassured by aides that it would be an effective backdrop.

"He's been very nice to me the times I've met him. I've been nice to him. He's a competitor," Trump said of Putin last week in Brussels.

Trump has long been convinced that his mastery of powerful images has been essential to his political rise.

Though the results from the North Korea summit are debatable, Trump has told confidants he believed it was a masterstroke, according to three outside advisers and White House officials.

Trump believed that the historic meeting with Kim was potentially his ticket for a Nobel Peace Prize.

While summits with Russian leaders are far more common, Trump believes a similar boost would occur if he can improve relations with Moscow and get Putin to make concessions never attained by President Barack Obama.

"I could say: 'Would you do me a favour? Would you get out of Syria,"' Trump said in an interview with Fox News last month. "'Would you do me a favour? Would you get out of Ukraine?"'

But many in Washington are leery of the summit occurring anywhere, believing that just by agreeing to meet, Trump has offered further global legitimacy to Putin, who will preside over the World Cup final in Moscow the day before the summit. Aides have argued to Trump that the chances of substantive progress on a host of thorny issues, including Syria and Ukraine, are slim.

"If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward," said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking and frequently derided special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible links between Russia and his campaign as a "witch hunt." But he said he would raise the election meddling with Putin even as he played down its impact.

"I don't think you'll have any 'Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,"' Trump said on Friday, invoking a television detective. "There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question."