President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit on Friday in Hamburg, Germany. AP
HAMBURG, Germany — President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in their first face-to-face encounter, a lengthy and amicable meeting Friday, to look beyond the controversy over Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 U.S. campaign and “find a way to go forward.”
That was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s upbeat characterization of the meeting. But the two sides offered contrasting accounts of the discussion of election meddling between the two leaders, which suggested that the long-running saga and ongoing criminal investigation will continue to be a potent distraction for the new president.
Trump raised the issue at the outset of a meeting that exceeded two hours. Putin denied any Russian interference and demanded proof, both sides agreed.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who joined the presidents along with Tillerson, told reporters that Trump accepted Putin’s denial — an act that would have the American president taking sides against his intelligence agencies, which have unanimously concluded that Russia, and Putin himself, were behind the election interference.
“Not a single fact has been presented,” Lavrov said. “President Trump has said that he has heard clear declarations from Mr. Putin that Russian leadership and Russian government has not interfered in the elections.”
Lavrov also said Trump called the lingering controversy “strange and bizarre.”
The White House did not publicly dispute Lavrov’s claim, nor did aides respond to requests for clarification.
Tillerson told reporters that Trump began the discussions by “raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference” in the American political process, which was followed by a “robust” and “lengthy discussion of the matter.”
Trump and Putin agreed that the controversy was a “substantial hindrance in the ability to move the U.S.-Russian relationship forward,” Tillerson said.
“There was not a lot of re-litigating of the past,” he added. “I think both of the leaders feel like there’s a lot of things in the past that both of us are unhappy about.”
White House aides had been circumspect about the agenda leading up to Friday’s formal bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 leaders’ summit here, acknowledging at one point that the topics would be “whatever the president wants to talk about,” as national security adviser H. R. McMaster put it last week.
Ultimately the conversation covered a range of other issues, officials said, including Ukraine, where Russian aggression has drawn international sanctions; Syria, where Russia and Iran prop up the Assad regime that the U.S. opposes; North Korea, where Russia’s economic interests make it less eager than Trump to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear threats; terrorism; and cybersecurity.
It was announced Friday that the two nations along with Jordan had brokered a cease-fire agreement in the southwest of Syria to take effect Sunday — an indication, Tillerson said, of what is possible when Russia and the U.S. cooperate on areas of mutual concern.
Talks went well beyond the scheduled 30 minutes. The encounter was under tremendous scrutiny, taking place against the backdrop of multiple investigations by the FBI and Congress into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and potential collusion involving former and current Trump aides.
Trump and Putin had exchanged cordial if lukewarm greetings in front of reporters before launching into the meeting, which included only the two presidents, Tillerson, Lavrov and two translators. At one point, Putin, who has been implicated in the deaths of journalists in Russia, pointed to the assembled reporters to ask if they were the ones who had “insulted” Trump. The president nodded and laughed in agreement.
“We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, and for the United States and for everybody concerned. And it’s an honor to be with you,” Trump said at the start of the meeting.
Putin said he was “delighted” for the chance to meet, following multiple conversations by phone earlier this year.
“If you want to have a positive outcome in bilaterals and be able to resolve most international policy issues, that will really need personal meetings,” Putin said.
The two presidents decided to put together a “framework” to monitor cyberattacks and evaluate who should be “held accountable,” Tillerson said. Lavrov indicated that progress was not made on a Russian demand that the United States return two diplomatic compounds, one in Maryland and another in New York, that had been used by Russian spies and were seized in December as part of the Obama administration’s sanctions for Moscow’s election interference.
They reached no agreement on North Korea. On Ukraine, at Putin’s request, Trump has appointed a special representative to engage in discussions. A day earlier, in a visit to Warsaw, Poland, Trump called publicly for Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
“Both presidents were driven by their national interests, and they also both understood that both countries can do this only if we search for a balance between the interests of our two countries and if we want to maintain stability,” Lavrov said.
The Russian foreign minister spoke to reporters soon after the presidents’ meeting. Tillerson addressed U.S. reporters later, with no cameras allowed and audio released only after the briefing ended.
The Russians’ more public attempt to shape the narrative of the meeting came just two months after when Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time, Sergey Kislyak, visited the White House, a day after Trump had fired the FBI director out of frustration with the Russia investigation. U.S. officials were blindsided by the Russian state news agency’s release of photos of the visit, which showed Trump and the Russians in jovial conversation.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed questions over Russia’s role in his victory as a “witch hunt” to de-legitimize his election and undermine his agenda. But Trump himself has often added to the controversy with his own statements.
As world leaders prepared to meet on weighty issues of trade, climate change and energy policy, Trump wrote on Twitter that “everyone” at the summit was talking about former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and the investigation into his hacked emails.
Democrats condemned Trump for appearing not to challenge Putin over his reported claim of innocence in the U.S. election.
“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,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.
“For Secretary Tillerson to say that this issue will remain unresolved is disgraceful,” Schumer added. “To give equal credence to the findings of the American intelligence community and the assertion by Mr. Putin is a grave dereliction of duty and will only encourage Russia to further interfere in our elections in the future.”
The meeting was celebrated as a victory on Russian state media.