HELSINKI, Finland – In any other diplomatic setting, it would have been a funny, if not trivial, gesture: A president handed over a soccer ball, a symbol of teamwork and competition used in the world’s most popular sport , to another, just after the World Cup Final.
But in this case, according to analysts and lawmakers who watched Monday’s press conference between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the ball was a metaphor for the spirit of the game in which the many critics of Mr Putin say he is well versed – and for the way he scored against an ill-prepared US leader in this high-stakes diplomatic exercise.
“The whole press conference was Trump repeatedly scoring against his own goals with the ball that Putin gave him,” said Brian Taylor, author of the book “The Code of Putinism” and professor of political science at the University of Syracuse, in an interview, describing a move in which a football player scores against his own team.
“Putin must have been extremely happy,” Taylor added.
The ball was just one of many dramatic moments at the joint press conference in Helsinki, Finland, in which Mr Putin and Mr Trump appeared to team up against the US press, Democrats and the intelligence community. .
And it wasn’t the first time that a catchy trick had been used between the Russians and the Americans in an attempt to soften icy diplomatic ties.
During a working lunch in 2009 between Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, and Mr. Putin’s Foreign Minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, Mrs. Clinton presented her with a red button bearing the Russian word “peregruzka” . The Americans were looking to improve relations after Russia invaded Georgia and believed the button said “reset.”
He actually said “overcharged”.
This time, after years of increasingly hostile actions by Russia against Ukraine, Syria, Britain and the United States, the Russians have brought the gimmick.
“Mr. President, I’m going to give you that ball,” Mr. Putin said, before getting the ball from an assistant and throwing it to the president, “and now the ball is in your court.
Balloon in hand, Mr. Trump smiled, rolled the balloon in his hands, and held it up so the room could see it. “It will go to my son Barron,” Mr. Trump said.
“Actually, Melania, there you go,” the president said, before throwing the ball towards the first lady, who was sitting next to a smiling Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state.
Mr Taylor noted that Mr Putin also used the gift of the ball to subtly undermine and reverse messages sent by the president’s key aides ahead of the meeting.
A few hours before the press conference, Mr. Pompeo said on twitter that “the ball is in Russia’s court” to work for a better relationship. This phrase has also been used by Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the US Ambassador to Russia, in recent weeks.
“The ball is really in Russia’s court,” Huntsman said, “and the president will continue to hold Russia accountable for its malicious activities.”
On Monday, Mr. Putin firmly returned the ball.
Mr Putin, a former senior KGB official, came to the press conference with steel eyes and prepared, as evidenced by the targeted grievances he has voiced against longtime enemies.
Across from him, Mr. Trump, a leader who doesn’t like to prepare for high-stakes meetings with other leaders and instead relies on personal connections to guide his diplomatic negotiations, seemed to focus on flattery by Mr. Putin.
“The fact that Putin prepared this gadget and did it well could be a metaphor for how the two tend to prepare for these kinds of events,” Taylor said.
Whether he realizes it or not, it was a Russian journalist from a state-funded news agency who set up the soccer ball exchange.
Mr Putin questioned Ilya Petrenko, a reporter for RT, formerly known as Russia Today, who questioned the Russian president that the ball was “in the Russian court” on cooperation with the United States on Syria.
When Mr Putin responded, he motioned for an assistant to wave the ball.
In the hours following the press conference, the White House touted the ball toss from its Twitter account, posting a Fox News music video.
“During their joint press conference, President Putin handed President Trump a soccer ball,” the White House’s Twitter assessment said. “The United States will co-host the World Cup in 2026.”
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News after meeting Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump expressed his appreciation for the gift. “This soccer ball was very beautiful, it was really very beautiful,” he said.
But as the president was in the sky on his way home, it was clear football was the last thing members of his party thought about.
Paul D. Ryan, the Republican president of the house, released a statement saying, “Russia is not an ally,” seemingly turning the tide from earlier this week, when he said after Mr. Trump has attacked his NATO allies that the president’s behavior should not be criticized abroad.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had harsher words.
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, selfishness, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” he said in a statement. “But it is clear that the Helsinki summit was a tragic mistake.”
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose wife was appointed by Mr. Trump to serve as ambassador to the Vatican, also broke rank.
“President Trump needs to clarify his statements in Helsinki about our intelligence system and Putin,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter. “This is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected immediately.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina and one of Mr. McCain’s closest allies in the Senate, said Mr. Trump missed an opportunity “to hold Russia firmly accountable for the 2016 interference and issue a strong warning about future elections “.
He also noticed the soccer ball.
“If that was me,” Graham said. “I would check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”