President Donald Trump hoped for “very positive” openings with Moscow as he held more than two hours of direct dialogue Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man believed to have ordered a campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election. It was Trump’s first face-to-face talk with the Russian leader.
The world watched closely as the two met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. The closed-door session lasted two hours, sixteen minutes – a time that far exceeded the expected length and suggested a broad range of topics may have been covered.
The meeting – originally set for 45 minutes – came at a time of growing tensions over an increasingly assertive U.S. military role in Syria, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and military maneuvers by Russia and NATO in Europe.
It was unclear, however, how much the talks could redirect the narrative on either side. The U.S. probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is moving ahead, and the two countries remain far apart on many issues.
But the mood was genial as Putin and Trump, sitting side by side, addressed reporters before the meeting.
“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump said.
“We’ve had some very very good talks. We’re going to have a talk now and obviously that will continue,” Trump said. “We look forward to a lot of very positive happenings for Russia and for the United States and for everyone concerned.”
Putin, referring to the phone conversations the two presidents have had, said “phone conversations are never enough definitely.”
“I’m delighted to be able to meet you personally,” Putin said. “And I hope that as you have said our meetings will yield positive results.”
Trump and Putin were joined in the meeting by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The contrast was clear: the Russian side has decades of diplomatic and leadership experience under its belt, while Trump and Tillerson are political newcomers despite extensive international business ties.
Syria, Ukraine and the battle against terrorism were certain to come up at the planned 35-minute chat set against the backdrop of antiglobalist protests. Russia has also raised objections to U.S. calls for tighter economic sanctions on North Korea after its latest missile test.
But those issues are the undercard to the dynamics of president’s meeting with a Kremlin leader accused of overseeing a hacking and disinformation effort on Trump’s behalf.
Several reporters in the room asked Trump if he would raise Russia’s election meddling, but Trump ignored the question. The U.S. president leaned toward Putin and said something that elicited a chuckle from the Russian.
Hours earlier, in a brief preliminary encounter, Trump and Putin shook hands. Video on a German government Facebook page showed Putin adding a friendly little finger point and a smile, while Trump clapped the Russian leader on the shoulder. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Trump and Putin had exchanged pleasantries and said “they’d see each other later.”
Trump on Thursday once again downplayed the notion that Russia meddled on his behalf in the 2016 election, which would seem to play into one of the Kremlin’s main objectives. Any signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington can put aside past differences and forge a new relationship is a victory for Putin.
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!”
The Kremlin has said that Putin wants the United States to 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 has 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 not to lift sanctions against what many in Washington see as an adversary intent on weakening democratic institutions and diminishing U.S. global leadership.
“The return of these two facilities to Russia while the Kremlin refuses to address its influence campaign against the United States would embolden President Vladimir Putin and invite a dangerous escalation in the Kremlin’s destabilizing actions against democracies worldwide,” Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Trump on Thursday.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Filipov, Abby Phillip