The Washington Post
HAMBURG, Germany — Eight months after an unprecedented U.S election — one that U.S. intelligence agencies say the Russian government tried to sway — President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin sat for their first meeting Friday, a friendly encounter that ended in confusion over whether Trump accepted assurances that the Kremlin was innocent of any wrongdoing during the campaign.
Trump, believed to be the intended beneficiary of the Russian meddling, emerged from the extraordinary meeting — which dragged so long that Trump’s wife tried once to break it up — with a deal including Russia and Jordan on a partial Syrian ceasefire. The agreement would mark the first time Washington and Moscow had operated together in Syria to try to reduce the violence.
But there were no grand bargains on U.S. sanctions on Russia, the Ukraine crisis or the other issues that have divided the nations for years.
The meeting, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, opened with Trump telling Putin it was an “honor to be with you.” In the closed-door discussion, Trump pressed Putin “on more than one occasion” on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections, said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who attended the two-hour-and-16-minute meeting.
Tillerson said “President Putin denied such involvement” but agreed to organize talks “regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process.”
But Tillerson’s counterpart, Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov, said that Trump had heard out Putin’s assurances that Moscow did not run a hacking and disinformation effort, and dismissed the entire investigation into the Russian role.
“President Trump said that this campaign has taken on a rather strange character, because after many months, whenever these accusations are made, no facts are brought,” Lavrov said. “The U.S. president said that he heard clear statements from President Putin about this being untrue, and that he accepted these statements.”
The two presidents, he said, are “looking for mutually beneficial agreements and not trying to act out some confrontation scenarios, not trying to create problems out of nothing.”
U.S. lawmakers from both parties had urged Trump to raise the election meddling with Putin. But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate minority leader, dismissed the outcome as “disgraceful.”
“President Trump had an obligation to bring up Russia’s interference in our election with Putin, but he has an equal obligation to take the word of our Intelligence Community rather than that of the Russian President,” Schumer said.
Before the meeting, analysts in Moscow and Washington had said that any signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington can put aside past differences and forge a new relationship would be a victory for Putin. In Moscow, political leaders were celebrating Friday night.
“In some sense it’s a breakthrough,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament. “Absolutely definitely psychologically, and possibly, practically.”
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house, said “there is no doubt that this meeting may become a step toward the solution to the situation in which the relations between our states currently are.”
The world had waited for the first in-person encounter between the president whose campaign was facing an investigation into possible collusion with Russia in the election meddling, and the Kremlin leader who allegedly intervened in Trump’s favor. But the presidents seemed intent on moving the relationship forward.
Trump told Putin that members of Congress were pushing for additional sanctions against Russia over the election issue, Tillerson said. “But the two presidents I think rightly focused on how do we move forward?” he added.
Trump and Putin designated top officials to collaborate on the creation of a framework that will prevent future political interference, Tillerson said, as part of a bilateral commission that would also discussion counterterrorism and resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.
Tillerson said they also agreed to a “de-escalation agreement” regarding a section of southwestern Syria. Jordan was also part of that agreement.
Syria’s lengthy civil war has left more than 400,000 people dead and led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands more. The U.S. and Russia have supported opposite parties during the civil war. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States has supported and trained groups that oppose Assad.
Past cease-fires in Syria have not lasted long. Tillerson suggested he was skeptical that the cease-fire would endure, saying, “We’ll see what happens.”
The meeting lasted much longer than expected. At one point, Trump’s wife, Melania, entered the room to try to see if it could wrap up soon, but it continued much longer.
“We went another hour (after) she came in to see us, so clearly she failed,” Tillerson said.
The mood was genial as Putin and Trump, sitting side by side, addressed reporters before the meeting.
“We look forward to a lot of very positive happenings for Russia and for the United States and for everyone concerned,” Trump said.
Putin, referring to the phone conversations the two presidents have had, said that “phone conversations are never enough definitely.”
“I’m very glad to be able to meet you personally,” Putin said. “And I hope that, as you have said, our meetings will yield positive results.”
In two tweets earlier Friday, Trump said he was looking forward to the meeting, and that “I will represent our country well and fight for its interests!”
Putin and Trump did not appear to resolve the Kremlin’s demand that the U.S. hand back two compounds that the previous administration seized in late December in retaliation for Russia’s actions in the U.S. campaign.
The Trump administration had already indicated it might return those compounds, which the Obama administration said were being used to gather intelligence. But Trump is facing bipartisan opposition at home to not make concessions to what many in Washington see as an adversary intent on weakening democratic institutions and diminishing U.S. global leadership.
The Senate recently voted 97 to 2 in favor of a Russian sanctions amendment to the Iran sanctions bill that “would require strict congressional review of any decision to overturn or lift existing policies on Russia, including the return of these two dachas, and would impose new sanctions to deter Russian aggression against the U.S. and its allies.”
In a speech in Poland, Trump gave mixed signals on the eve of the summit, urging Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.”
Trump also repeated a position shared by Putin, saying that “nobody really knows” who was behind the hacking during the U.S. presidential campaign, and questioning U.S. intelligence agencies’ affirmation of Russia’s involvement because they were wrong about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Both of these statements align with the Kremlin’s own stance on the election hacking.
More recently, Trump caused a stir when he met with Lavrov in the White House and shared intelligence on the Islamic State provided to the U.S. by Israel.
During their meeting Friday, Trump and Putin also had a lengthy discussion of North Korea, Tillerson said. He said Russia shares the U.S.’s position that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons, but he added that Moscow has resisted efforts to cut off economic ties with Pyongyang and isolate the regime. Tillerson said the White House was still working “to see if we cannot persuade them as to the urgency that we see.”