A war of narratives: a comparative map on how the leading US and Russian newspapers reported the first meeting between Trump and Putin

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Fernanda Magnotta is the Head of the International Relations Program at FAAP, MSc in US Foreign Policy.

Roman Chukov is Chair of the Board at Russian Center for Promotion of International Initiatives, PhD in political science.

Last Friday, during the G20 summit, the US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time. The meeting was surrounded by expectations and marked by all types of speculation. The bilateral relationship has been controversial since the Obama administration, but the polemics have gained momentum in last year’s election when Trump came to power.

Trump’s agenda becomes even more critical as he has been waging a war on the American media since the campaign. Trump popularized the term “fake news” by accusing the CNN network of making up facts, and made the “post-truth” concept the word of the year of 2016, according to Oxford University. In addition, he decided to communicate directly with the American society through Twitter not to depend on the curatorship of the country’s major media outlets.

The repercussions of the first Trump-Putin meeting show why it is important to devote time not only to the study of what the media reports, but to understand how it reports – the nature of its business and the interests involved, in all cases, in both countries. When comparing the newspapers with the largest circulation in the United States and Russia, we perceive antagonistic ways of describing and analyzing the same event. Thus, we reinforce the idea of ​​Robert Cox, an important critical theorist of International Relations, who stats that every narrative “is always for someone and for some purpose”.

Overall, the repercussions of the meeting on the major US newspapers took on a doubly critical tone: first, it was full of provocations about Trump’s deal-maker capacity, since the summary made by most media vehicles is that Russia was the winner of the meeting; secondly, because there is a severe tone of criticism in all the newspapers over President Putin and the policies pursued by Moscow.

All the analyzed vehicles in the US reported details of the ceremonial and protocol issues related to the reunion: a) the presence of only six people, including the two presidents, their respective foreign ministers and two translators; b) the duration, which should be around 30 minutes, but last more than 2 hours; and c) the frustrated attempt of interruption carried out by Melania Trump. The USA Today, the paper with the widest circulation in the country, even invited body language experts to analyze the official handshake between the two presidents.

From a substantive point of view, the cease-fire negotiated in Syria in partnership with Jordan and, the establishment of a cyber-security working group, are listed as concrete results of the meeting. Despite this, the repercussion of these issues was not so extraordinary than Trump’s approach on possible Russian interference in the US electoral process during 2016. The debate over the divergent versions involving this point of the debate prevailed. Not only the impressions of Trump and Putin were presented in an exhaustive way, but also the apparently divergent manifestations of Rex Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov on the subject were over-explored as well. One of the Washington Post’s (WAPO) headline summarizes the general criticism: “Tillerson says Trump ‘pressed’ Putin on Russia’s hacking. But it does not sound like he pressed very hard”.

In the editorials of the New York Times (NYT), WAPO and Los Angeles Times Trump’s leadership and strategy was firmly criticized.

The first one said that the president readily accepted the claim that Russia did not had interfered in the elections and did not propose any punishment to prevent similar events in the future. In addition, it accuses Trump of being more comfortable with what it calls “authoritarian leaders”, classifying Putin in this sense, rather than with allies.

The second classified the meeting as “necessary”, but “hardly ‘an honor’” referring to the greeting Trump did to Putin during the shake hands ceremony. It says: “it is not an honor to sit down with the leader of a regime that invades peaceable neighbors, covertly interferes in the elections of democratic nations, and orchestrates and tolerates the assassination of domestic political opponents and journalists”.

The third, published before the meeting, was full of expectations that Trump would explore possible areas of cooperation, but also confront Putin about what it called “continuing attempts to intimidate neighboring countries”.

In the op-Ed articles, written by analysts of different backgrounds, the idea that prevails, again, is that the meeting favored Russia more than the United States.

Maureen Dowd entitled her text in the NYT as “Vlad, the Trump Impaler”. In the same tone, Neil MacFarquhar reported Russia was “bragging” about the outcome of the meeting. Nicholas Kristof, also in the NYT, suggested that “Putin have had Trump for lunch”. Masha Gessen finally stated that “Trump gave Putin exactly what he wanted”. According to her, while Trump describes the meeting as “tremendous” he might had fallen into a trap, as Putin achieved two important goals: to be treated with deference, as “an equal”, and not to be constrained on subjects such as Ukraine and issues related to political freedom and human rights, typical on the bilateral meetings since the 1970s.

At WAPO, Paul Waldman said the meeting did not indicate any kind of agreement that would benefit the United States. Straightforward on the bond between Putin and Trump, he said: “if there is one principle that has guided Donald Trump’s career and worldview, it’s that either you’re the dominator or the dominated, the winner or the loser, the con man or the sucker. If you aren’t one, then you’re the other. Guess who’s who in this relationship”. Although less harsh with the adjectives, David Ignatius also considered that despites Trump could claim a “victory” on the meeting, the biggest beneficiary is likely to be Putin, who took the opportunity to “get out of the cold” after sanctions and ‘diplomatic isolation’ after the reunification with Crimea in 2014.

In the WSJ the criticism of Trump was toned down. First, the newspaper reported that “by raising Russian interference in the U.S. election, Mr. Trump made clear to Vlad that he would be dealing with the President of all American people” which was called a positive outcome. Later, James Freeman also called Putin “the biggest loser” of the reunion. For him, the Russians were already at a disadvantage even before the meeting, especially because of the country’s economic difficulties. He said: “Mr. Putin’s KGB training under the old communist regime may be useful to weaken other countries, but it does not enrich their own”. In addition, he said that Trump’s energy policy will create difficulties for Russia, especially with the possibility of increased cooperation with China.

In contrast, leading Russian media outlets reacted to the meeting of the two leaders mostly positive. On the whole, it was noted that the first meeting exceeded many expectations even if it was almost two hours longer than planned and showed the opportunity and intentions to find a common ground. All key points of the bilateral relations were substantively discussed by the two presidents through the prism of the constructive interaction in each of the directions.

With regard to the leaders meeting on the sideline of the G20, the authors of Kommersant newspaper Elena Chernenko and Pavel Tarasenko make a large review of the comments from both Russian and American sides on such achievements from the meeting, as a cease-fire in the zone of de-escalation in south-west Syria, creation of a bilateral channel for discussing Ukraine and establishment of the special working group of the Russian Federation and the United States, which will deal with cyber security issues. It is noted that the parties agreed to speed up the process of appointing new ambassadors and also discussed the expropriation of the so-called ‘dachas’ of Russia’s UN permanent mission in New York and the embassy in Washington. Now they, according to the diplomatic sources of the newspaper, “are discussing the possibility of holding a meeting between Sergei Ryabkov (deputy Foreign Minister of Russia) and Thomas Shannon (US Under Secretary of State) in St. Petersburg in the second half of July”. However, regarding the issues of mutual sanctions, the authors summarize that “the meeting of the two presidents on Friday did not clarify the issue, whether it will be possible to interrupt this spiral of confrontation”.

Yulia Sapronova in RBC review of the leaders meeting quotes the words of the State Department head Rex Tillerson that “positive chemistry” has been formed between the presidents. The article provides bullet-points of the main agreements on Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, cyber security and bilateral relations. As for Russia’s alleged interference in the conduct of elections in the United States, Trump’s words are also cited that no evidence of the interference has been presented so far, and he trusts Putin’s words, who denies any interference.

The business newspaper Vedomosti and its author Margarita Papchenkova in her article on the outcome of the bilateral meeting quotes the words of the Russian President that “television Trump is different from the real one”. Russian President Vladimir Putin shared that Trump is much more specific, understands the counterpart adequately, knows how to analyze information. It is reported in the article that at a press conference by Putin, NBC News journalists complained about the lack of information transparency of the White House about Trump’s answers to questions about Russian interference in the elections, and Russian leader answered them with a joke “we will voice it to them strongly”, and tried to remember the Donald Trump answers.

Mostly, the American media focused on Putin’s criticism, while Russian media did not generally comment on Trump, but rather focused on the future of bilateral relations and G20 priorities.

Putting it in a nutshell, it seems that the legacy of the US-Russia interaction thus far failed not just to bring a positive agenda to bilateral relations, but also facilitated the shaping of narratives not just in the government level, but also in the media level. In both countries there is the sense that this meeting opens a new page in relations between Russia and the United States. The reasons for that firmly diverge, as we presented.

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