Interview

Trump’s ‘Unbridled, Egotistical Narcissism’ Defines White House Summits

Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering on Trump, Putin, and the world after Helsinki.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering attends a forum on the Muslim experience in America in Washington on Oct. 23, 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Ambassador Thomas Pickering attends a forum on the Muslim experience in America in Washington on Oct. 23, 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As President Donald Trump plans for a second U.S.-Russia summit in Washington this fall, Thomas Pickering, one of America’s most distinguished diplomats, discusses with Foreign Policy the country’s troubled relationship with Russia. Pickering, 86, served as ambassador to six countries and the United Nations during his career, including ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996.

Foreign Policy: Can you remember an example of a summit where there has been so much confusion among the country’s top national security advisors on what transpired?

Thomas Pickering: I can’t think of another instance where a U.S. president has acted in such an ill-informed and clearly distinctly negative way about the United States, its interests, and its institutions—just another unparalleled disaster in the saga of this guy. It’s pretty awful.

FP: Are you concerned by reports that Trump was not accompanied by his advisors or a White House notetaker during his two-hour meeting with Putin in Helsinki?

TP: No. The tradition in the U.S. is that interpreters make a clear verbatim record of the conversation. I mean, unless the guy is a real klutz, he should have done it, and it’s probably his most important interpreting assignment.

FP: But is it unusual for a head of state to go into a two-hour meeting with another world leader without his advisors?

TP: It’s totally unusual. I was in Moscow for two or three or four of the summits in the Clinton administration. Discussions took place well ahead of time. There was joint U.S.-Russian preparatory work building up to the summit so that, in fact, the presidents knew what had already been agreed and remained yet to be agreed, including with suggestions about how to do that. It’s not impossible that both Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton for one reason or another raised issues that might not have been prefigured in the preparatory work but highly unlikely.

FP: In the years before Putin came to power, was he on everybody’s radar?

TP: Putin at that time acted very much like a full-fledged, 100 percent, genuinely bona fide KGB agent. He listened, he glowered, he had very little to say, and he generally was not what one would call a truly satisfactory interlocutor.

FP: When you were in Moscow during the 1990s, did American policymakers have any inkling that Putin would become Russia’s leader?

TP: My first inkling came when he was brought to Moscow a couple of years after that to be head of the Kremlin administration, which was a real sign that he was headed for bigger things. Then he became head of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence service. Then he became prime minister with rights of succession to the presidency, and it was clear.

FP: Was Helsinki a total wash, or do you think that useful things came out of it?

TP: It’s hard to guess. Some mention of some subjects give you a hint that there may well have been some things that could have produced something useful. But there is no indication of what. Trump has become very reluctant to be involved in any of the diplomacy on Syria. And if, in fact, the door has been opened to doing that, it holds out a glimmer of hope that there could be something more successful to pursue there.

FP: We’ve been through the G-7 summit, the NATO summit, the North Korea summit, and now Helsinki. What does this say about the perils of summitry under the Trump presidency and the president’s ability to manage them?

TP: Trump’s own kind of unbridled, egotistical narcissism seems to be the major definer of [U.S. summitry under the Trump presidency]. U.S. national interests take a second or third place. Reality TV as an instrument for promoting Trump, his ego, and his political success ranks in his mind and his actions way above promoting U.S. national interests.

FP: If you were advising President Trump, what would you tell him to do?

TP: The United States needs to make clear proposals on the wide variety of subjects of interest. … At the top should be election intervention and nuclear questions, including New START, nonproliferation, INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty], other allegations of treaty violations, and long-term reductions of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, as well as tighter control of chemical and biological weapons.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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