Donald Trump ‘thought Finland was part of Russia’

Context is key - if the President of the United States of America really didn't know that Finland is an independent nation, when was he asking that question?

President Trump (L) meets President Niinistö (R) in Washington DC, 2nd October 2019 / Credit: Matti Porre / TPK

A new book from one of Donald Trump‘s former top advisors claims the US president once asked him if Finland was part of Russia.

It sounds like an odd question to pose, especially given the number of times Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has met his American counterpart; because Trump had previously visited Finland for private business dealings in the 1990s; and because he most recently flew to the Nordic nation for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018.

But experts say the context of Trump’s alleged comments is all to do with timing.

“It really matters when he said it. If he said it after he met Niinistö it is genuinely bizarre. It makes it even stranger if he said it after their first meeting at the White House” says Charly Salonius-Pasternak from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.

Who is John Bolton, and what’s in his book? 

John Bolton was the National Security Advisor at the White House from April 2018 to September 2019, filling a traditionally powerful role where the incumbent advises the president on issues that cut cross politics, defence and foreign policy.

A career conservative operator, Bolton has previously been America’s ambassador at the United Nations; advocated for regime change in a slew of countries including Venezuela and Iraq; and has defended the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He’s also headed a right-wing think tank which has pushed anti-Muslim narratives.

Bolton left his job as National Security Adviser last autumn – he says he resigned, Trump says he was fired – and went on to sign a book deal. That book, ‘The Room Where It Happened’, is due to be published next week, and although the Trump Administration is trying to block its publication excerpts have already been leaked by American media outlets.

The New York Times reports numerous instances from the book where Bolton says Trump was confused about foreign policy issues and simple geography; tried to pressure foreign governments to either help his electoral chances, or investigate his opponents; and gave “personal favours to dictators he likes” such as the leaders of Turkey and China.

How has Trump responded? 

In typical bullish fashion, Donald Trump has shared his reactions to the leaks from Bolton’s books to his 82.2 million followers on Twitter.

He calls his former ally “incompetent” and a “wacko” whose book is “made up of lies & fake stories.”

“Said all good things about me, in print, until the day I fired him” writes Trump.

“A disgruntled boring fool who only wanted to go to war. Never had a clue, was ostracized & happily dumped. What a dope!” the President of the United States continues.

President Niinistö (L) meets President Trump (R) in the White House, 3rd October 2019 / Credit: TPK

So what’s the context to these comments? 

Could it really be true that despite the best diplomatic efforts and political outreach, the occupant of the White House, once considered the most powerful person on the planet, doesn’t know that Finland is an independent country?

Senior Research Fellow Charly Salonius-Pasternak says that if true, the episode is surely more nuanced than it might appear.

“It is worrying, especially if the quote is not that old. Did he say it in 2015 as a candidate?Did he say it to John Bolton when he was already in office, at a point where he’s already spoken to Niinistö?” asks Salonius-Pasternak.

“If he had spoken to Niinistö at that point and then uttered anything like that I guess one shouldn’t be surprised, but it does point to the fact he really doesn’t understand nor does he have the ability to seemingly grasp and take in new information” he adds.

Salonius-Pasternak also says that on a positive not the president’s alleged comments are more of a reflection of what we already know about Donald Trump, rather than about Finland’s bilateral relationship with America.

“The relationship is more broad and deeper, Americans know the Finns are the good guys, even if they don’t know too much about us” he says, pointing out areas in defence cooperation in particular where the two countries have moved closer in recent years.

And the FIIA research fellow points to two American companies which got approval to bid for next generation fighter contracts worth €10 billion to Finland – a transfer of military technology that simply wouldn’t be allowed to a country not considered an ally.

“If Trump thought Finland was part of Russia, why would he think it is okay to sell Hornets to Finland?”

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