What a football said about Putin's meeting with Trump in Helsinki

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (middle), US President Donald Trump and First lady Melania Trump pose for a picture with a football during a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (middle), US President Donald Trump and First lady Melania Trump pose for a picture with a football during a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

HELSINKI (NYTIMES) - In any other diplomatic setting, it would have been a funny, even insignificant gesture: One president handed a football, a symbol of teamwork and competition used in the most popular sport in the world, to another, just after the World Cup final.

But in this case, according to analysts and lawmakers who watched the Monday news conference between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the ball was a metaphor for the gamesmanship that Putin's many critics say he is well-versed in - and for how he has scored points against an ill-prepared American leader in this high-stakes diplomatic exercise.

"The whole press conference was Trump repeatedly scoring own goals with the ball that Putin had given him," Brian Taylor, author of the book "The Code of Putinism" and a political-science professor at Syracuse University, said in an interview, describing a move in which a soccer player scores against his own team.

"Putin must've been extremely happy," Taylor added.

The ball was just one of many dramatic moments during the joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland, in which Putin and Trump seemed to team up against the US press, Democrats and the intelligence community.

And it was not the first time an attention-grabbing gimmick has been used between the Russians and the Americans in efforts to smooth over icy diplomatic relations.

During a 2009 working lunch between Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, and Putin's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, Clinton presented him with a red button labelled with the Russian word "peregruzka".

The Americans were seeking to improve relations after Russia invaded Georgia, and thought the button said "reset". It actually said "overcharged."

This time, following years of increasingly hostile actions carried out by Russia against Ukraine, Syria, Britain and the United States, the Russians brought the gimmick.

"Mr President, I'll give this ball to you," Putin said, before procuring the ball from an aide and tossing it to the president, "and now the ball is in your court."

Ball in hand, Trump smiled, rolled the ball around in his hands, and held it up for the room to see. "That will go to my son Barron," Trump said.

"In fact, Melania, here you go," the president said, before throwing the ball towards the first lady, who sat next to a grinning Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state.

Taylor noted that Putin also used the gift of the ball to subtly undermine and invert messages sent by the president's top aides before the meeting.

Just hours before the news conference, Pompeo said on Twitter that "the ball is in Russia's court" to work for a better relationship. That phrase has also been used by Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the US ambassador to Russia, in recent weeks.

"The ball really is in Russia's court," Huntsman said, "and the president will continue to hold Russia accountable for its malign activity."

On Monday, Putin firmly kicked the ball back.

Putin, a former top agent for the KGB, came to the news conference steely-eyed and prepared, as evidenced in the targeted grievances he aired against longtime foes.

Across from him, Trump, a leader who dislikes preparing for high-stakes meetings with other leaders and instead relies on personal relationships to guide his diplomatic deal-making, seemed to come in focused on flattering Putin.

"That Putin had this gimmick ready and pulled it off well could be a metaphor for the way both of them tend to prepare for these kind of events," Taylor said.

Whether he realised it or not, it was a Russian journalist from a state-funded news organisation who set up the football exchange.

Putin called on Ilya Petrenko, a journalist with RT, the broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today, who asked the Russian president about the ball being "in the Russian court" when it comes to cooperation with the United States on Syria.

As Putin answered, he gestured for an aide to brandish the ball.

In the hours after the news conference, the White House touted the ball toss from its Twitter account, posting a video clip from Fox News.

"During their joint press conference, President Putin presented President Trump with a soccer ball," came the Twitter assessment from the White House. "The United States will co-host the World Cup in 2026."

In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News after the meeting with Putin, Trump voiced his appreciation for the gift. "That soccer ball was very nice, it really was very nice," he said.

 
 
 
 

But while the president was in the sky on the way home, it was clear that soccer was the last thing on the minds of those in his party.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, released a statement saying, "Russia is not an ally," apparently reversing course from earlier in the week, when he said after Trump attacked his allies at Nato that the president's behavior should not be criticised overseas.

Senator John McCain had harsher words.

"The damage inflicted by President Trump's naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate," he said in a statement. "But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose wife was nominated by Trump to serve as an ambassador to the Vatican, also broke rank.

"President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin," Gingrich wrote on Twitter. "It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected immediately."

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of McCain's closest allies in the Senate, said Trump had missed an opportunity "to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections."

He also noticed the football.

"If it were me," Graham said. "I'd check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House."