Mr. Trump Goes To Moscow
It was winter, of course. But as President Donald J. Trump stepped out of Air Force One and descended the metal staircase into the frigid Russian night, he did not think of Napoleon crossing the Berezina, his remaining troops starving and dying of hypothermia, or even of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, freezing their asses off at negative 42 degrees outside of Moscow. He was thinking of only one thing: shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. The eighth-degree black belt would have a strong grip, and the President of the United States wanted to make a tough first impression.
The President had spent two grueling weeks preparing for a trip that, he knew, would define America’s relations with Russia for at least a decade, and that would be closely watched by the media of both countries. He also knew that Putin would be a formidable adversary, which is why he had spent his nights binge-watching Sean Connery-era James Bond flicks alone in the Oval Office. Melania had scoffed at first, then just bit her lip and looked worried whenever she passed the doorway.
But Donald wanted to be ready for whatever tricks the ex-KGB strongman might have up his sleeve. He had even stopped by the CIA headquarters to see if there were any special gadgets that might give him an edge on his upcoming mission. The senior staffer he had met with, who looked nothing like Q, had offered him cyanide capsules. Not funny, he had thought. You’re fired. But his lips had stayed pressed in a tight, thin line.
That night, alone in the Oval Office, he laid face-down on the floor, placed his hands under his shoulders, and tried to do a push-up, the way he had learned so many years ago in military school. But as much as he struggled, sweated, and strained, he just couldn’t lift his 236-pound frame off the cold, tile floor. Finally, he dropped his knees to the ground, shifted his weight onto them, and pushed himself up with a grunt.
After these Rocky Balboa-like preparations, the President’s arrival in the Russian capital felt anticlimactic. He had expected to be welcomed by Putin himself, perhaps accompanied by his 23-year-old girlfriend, who he had seen pictures of on the internet, and who had quite a body. Instead, he found Sergey Lavrov waiting for him on the tarmac, gray-haired and puffing impatiently on a cigarette. The President’s advisors had informed him that Lavrov had played an important role in the Ukraine crisis of 2014, which, he had to admit, he had not followed very closely at the time.
“Zdravstvuyte,” the President said with a winning smile as he clasped the gloved hand of the Foreign Minister. He had been practicing that one. But Lavrov only muttered something Donald didn’t quite catch. It was a long ride back to the Kremlin.
The Russians had arranged for a state dinner that night to honor the new President and his entourage. Finally, as Donald climbed out of the limousine, he saw the man he had spent so much time thinking about. Dressed in a smart black suit, the Russian President was only five foot seven, practically a whole head shorter than him. But something about the trim cut of his jacket, and the elegant gait with which he approached the car, made Donald uneasy, like watching a viper uncoil itself, as he had once, through thick glass, as a boy at the Bronx zoo. When the decisive moment came, he didn’t hear a word Putin said — all his attention was on the warm, sickening feeling of his small right hand being swallowed and then crushed by the Russian president’s. He averted his gaze — against his own will, it seemed — and mumbled something pleasant he later couldn’t remember.
The rest of the evening was a blur — the clinking of champagne and vodka glasses, the taste of caviar, the drone of conversations in a language he didn’t understand. Throughout the night, many people came up to congratulate him on his victory over Hillary Clinton. The Russians, it seemed, were genuinely happy he had won. But for once, Donald found it hard to enjoy the adulation. He kept thinking about the handshake. Finally, he excused himself, complaining that the caviar hadn’t agreed with his stomach.
The President spent most of the next day in a conference room with Putin and their respective advisors. Before his departure from the States, President Trump had told the press he was very confident he could make a deal with Russia that would resolve the current tensions over Syria, ISIS, and Iran. And in fact, he had been optimistic. After all, he had literally written the book on making deals — hadn’t he? But as the day wore on, Vladimir Putin refused to make a single concession to the Americans. He just sat there, leaning back in his chair, the slightest hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth, as he said “no” to everything the President and his team suggested. At the end of the day, as the two men beamed for the press, it was clear that Putin was planning to continue doing exactly what he had been doing all along, with no concern for the Americans’ preferences.
The next day, the Russian press had arranged a trip to the countryside as a kind of extended photo op for the two Presidents. The men were supposed to go tiger hunting on horseback. Donald had ridden horses before, on the dude ranch his family had sometimes visited in the summer. As he approached the chestnut mare the Russians had provided for him, though, he found it was a little harder to swing up into the saddle than he remembered, and a groom had to use both hands to help push his ass into place. The President winced and hoped none of the photographers had managed to capture that Kodak moment.
The Presidents and their party — which included SBP and Secret Service, gamekeepers, grooms, photographers, and EMTs — rode out into the forest. Their path took them up snowy trails, through shady stands of oak and thick groves of slender birches. Donald kept scanning the blank spaces between the trees for a hint of striped fur. In his mind he saw the yellow eyes of a tiger, staring him down. He shivered, even in his thick winter gear. The President had never read any Hemingway, but he imagined this must be what it felt like to be in one of his stories.
Several hours later, the group stopped by the banks of an icy stream to rest. Putin took off his jacket and thermal to wash his face in the stream and flex for the cameras. I really need to drop fifteen pounds, Donald thought, as he watched the slender man clowning with the camera crew. To tell the truth, the President had had about enough of this. He was tired, frustrated, and more than a little peeved that Putin seemed so blithely unconcerned about the prospect of confronting a potentially man-eating tiger. He dismounted with some difficulty, and then, huffing and puffing, stalked over to Putin.
“Vladimir,” he said, “we’ve been riding almost all day, and I haven’t seen any tigers. It’s getting dark. How much longer are we going to stay out here?”
The Russian President coughed, covering his mouth with his hand. A few of his SBP bodyguards began to chuckle. Finally, Putin broke out into a deep belly laugh.
“There are no tigers within a thousand miles of, here, Mr. Trump,” Putin said. “Maybe in Siberia” — -but the sentence erupted once again into laughter.
The President’s face flushed a shade between orange and scarlet, but he managed to choke out a “very funny, Mr. Putin.”
That night, on the way back to the Kremlin, Putin ordered their driver to stop at a nondescript building on the outskirts of the city.
“Where are we?” asked the President.
“There’s something I want to show you,” Putin replied.
Donald looked to the head of his Secret Service detail. The square-jawed man nodded that it was okay to go ahead. The group climbed out of the vehicle and filtered through the guarded entrance of the unmarked warehouse. Putin mincingly led the President through a metal doorway and into a dark room filled with computer screens. He paused in front of a monitor manned by a scrawny, straw-haired teenager in a black hoodie.
“Alexei,” Putin said, “show Mr. Trump the archive.”
“Sir?” the young man asked, a tremor of uncertainty in his voice.
Putin gave him a look. A few clicks later, Donald was staring at a spreadsheet full of dates, e-mail addresses, subject lines, and keywords. The President turned white as the Russian snow.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“It’s been a long day in the woods — no cellular reception,” Putin smiled. “I thought you might want to check your e-mail.”