Media hypes Trump-Putin showdown as the 'Axis of Testosterone'
Would President Trump look Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and broach his country's meddling in the presidential campaign? Would Putin smirk, filibuster and scoff at Trump over his support of the Syrian regime or Putin's disinclination to do much with North Korea?
Might Putin take off his own shirt, exhibit that well-known upper chest, and see if Trump could wrestle him to the ground as if he were, say, a CNN logo on a GIF?
Press speculation was predictably rampant Friday and ranged from body language to geopolitics (nothing about wrestling, though) as a central, private session of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany approached (the "Axis of Testosterone" was coined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed).
It all opened with superficial preliminaries, notably the group photo of world leaders. Would Trump push some little-known nation head, as he did the prime minister of Montenegro at a recent NATO session in Brussels?
No, it was all pretty tranquil, with the only real curiosity being the dashing new president of France snaking his way through the group so he could be in the first row next to Trump on the end. So there was evidence that Trump was not quite as radioactive in international circles as some in the press suggest.
And there was German government video — shown over and over — of a possible chance morning encounter between Trump and Putin where they shook one another's hand and were, well, very diplomatic. Trump not only held out his right hand but patted Putin on the back with his left as if this were the first hole at one of his golf courses and they were embarking on a low-key Sunday match.
CNN's Chris Cuomo, an occasional contrarian not lacking in self-confidence, suggests that Trump's arrogance and ability to stay on point could be very helpful. To dismiss Trump's ability to "step up," Cuomo said, might be a big underestimation of his talent.
That tended to be a minority take, with much of the pre-meeting punditry focused on the caricature of Putin as wily and shrewd combatant notorious for making rivals look weak. There was an underlying suggestion that Putin, the former KGB spy, is smarter, better versed in not just Russian aims and capabilities but perhaps even U.S. strengths and weaknesses.
Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion and political activist, told NBC's Richard Engel that Putin is a poker player, not a chess player, with the logical and tactical dictates of chess not quite suited to his gambler's personality.
There was ample mention of what appeared an experiential gap between the two sides. Trump and Rex Tillerson have about one combined year of government experience, while Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have about 80 years.
Only that quartet, and two translated, would be in the room, meaning the likelihood that not much would be leaking out when they were done — and that rank speculation might well rule for a period, with each side spinning a version soon after the session ended via formal "readouts" and, then, over time with selective leaks.
In the early Trump administration, most observers see Putin and Lavrov as having been more skilled in managing public relations. When Tillerson met with them in Moscow, the U.S. was seen as having been "played" by the Russians, as Fox's Chris Wallace put it Friday.
So was this potentially a win-win for Putin, meaning that if it failed, he could portray Trump as weak and, if something positive happened, the Russian could be seen as uncharacteristically conciliatory? It was one of multiple theories thrown about Friday.
"Soon: Trump & Putin Hold High-Stakes Bilateral Meeting" was the CNN chyron.
"Watch the body language," said John Roberts of Fox News from Hamburg as the pre-meeting amateur psychoanalysis began. "The initial body language in this so-called retreat, as the G20 was getting underway this morning, seemed to be very relaxed, seemed to be very informal, seemed to be very cordial. He did not, Putin, see to take any sort of aggressive posture."
Yes, yes, seemed, seemed, seemed.
In lieu of facts, a lot of things seemed to be as the Axis of Testosterone convened and took the measure of one another.
At 4:10 p.m. local time, the meeting's preliminary public moments aired with Trump and Putin making brief and generally banal statements. Putin said he was "delighted" to be there, with all the outward exuberance of an undertaker. The cameras were led out of the room and the session began.