A Single Image

By Nancy Langley, Policy Choices
Originally published December 01, 2018 | 2:10PM

During the course of this past week, with so many stories breaking in the news cycles and grabbing headlines, there is one scene from the G20 Summit that is forever imprinted in my mind.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 30, 2018.
SOURCE: NBC NEWS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman high-five each other as U.S. President Donald Trump quickly observes as he entered the room where they attend the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 30, 2018.

Click here to read the NBC article.

What is it about the scene that I find so disturbing? The single image here doesn’t capture the sequence of the full greeting between Putin and MBS. That sequence involved a high-five, laughing, and the bro’ handshake.  In the video, we see Trump lumber into the room behind the two men. NBC nailed their selection of single images to feature of that video moment: this shows that Trump saw the two men together as he entered the room. In the video, we see a quick glance in that direction and then Trump quickly averts his gaze and walks away from the men. 

Why does it matter? Why is this disturbing?

Russia, this past week, again exerted aggressive forces against Ukraine – this time at sea. What response was given by the U.S. president? Nothing – until he tweeted that he was cancelling his meeting with Putin during his Argentina trip because of the Russian aggression. Did he suggest that sanctions be imposed? No. Were harsh words spoken? No. There was nothing said or done that was critical of Putin. Trump merely cancelled a meeting.

MBS is the Saudi Arabian prince who is suspected of issuing the order for the butchering of the Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi in his embassy.

Despite U.S. intelligence suggesting that scenario, Trump’s public statements refused to place blame or responsibility on the Crown Prince. He told Trump he didn’t know anything about it – according to Trump – and Trump pronounced his belief of the statement. Nonetheless, Trump decided it would be bad PR to meet with the Prince in Argentina as well. Bad PR …

Bros don’t lie to bros, right?

Except – they do.

I don’t know why Putin and MBS were laughing. I don’t know what set off their shared joy upon seeing each other. But here’s my concern …

There were two foreign leaders who were publicly on the U.S. “Bad Boy List” that Trump publicly announced he would not meet with during the summit.

That was their “punishment”. That was the U.S. response to their violations of international breaches of trust. 

And they don’t care.

Why would they care? What harm comes to them from a symbolic public rebuke of their companionship?

Were Putin and MBS laughing at the weakness of the United States? Were they laughing because they know they’ve contributed to the U.S. inability to act against them? Were they laughing because they own Trump, and subsequently, the U.S.?

We don’t know for certain. Yet. But we need to know, and hopefully, Mueller’s investigation will provide some of the answers the U.S. desperately needs to have.