HAMBURG, Germany — President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for over two hours Friday afternoon, discussing interference in US elections and ending with an agreement on curbing violence in Syria, the top American diplomat said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after the session the ceasefire was a “defined agreement” and could be a precursor to further cooperation in Syria.
“This is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” Tillerson said. The leaders had a “lengthy discussion of other areas in Syria where we can work together.”
Trump and Putin focused on ways to move past Russia’s alleged interference in the US election, said Tillerson, who was in the meeting with the leaders.
Trump opened the session by “raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election,” the secretary of state said.
“They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson said. “The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”
Tillerson said both leaders want to move on.
“I think what the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how do we move forward,” he said. “How do we move forward from here?”
Talks focused on how the two countries “secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention” of interfering in future elections, Tillerson added. “How do we have a framework where we have capability to judge what is happening in the cyberworld.”
According to Russian state-run Sputnik media, the leaders discussed the situation in Ukraine and Syria, the fight against terrorism and cybersecurity.
“I had a very lengthy conversation with the President of the United States, there were a lot of issues such as Ukraine, Syria, other problems, some bilateral issues,” Putin is quoted as saying after the session was complete.
High-stakes headed in
The meeting put Trump, a man who ran for president pledging to buck US foreign relations conventions and put “America First,” face-to-face with those promises as people — including many Democrats — in the United States urged the President to stand up to Putin, assert American dominance and challenge the Russian leader on 2016 election meddling.
Speaking to reporters at the start of their conference, Trump and Putin remained mostly positive.
“President Putin and I have been discussing various things and I think it is going very well,” Trump said. “We have had some very, very good talks.”
“We are going to have a talk now and obviously that is going to continue,” Trump added. “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.”
Putin, in a CNN translation, told Trump he was “delighted” to meet face-to-face.
“We have spoken on the phone with you several times on very important bilateral and international issues. But phone conversation are never enough,” Putin said.
“If we want to resolve bilateral and acute international issues, we definitely need personal meetings. I’m delighted to be able to meet you in person Mr. President, and I hope — as you have said — that our meeting will yield positive results,” Putin added.
Busy day for G20
Trump’s formal meeting with Putin, a pivotal encounter that will likely color the tone and tenor of US relations with Russia for years, sits atop Trump’s schedule of critical meetings on Friday, including a prolonged sit-down with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Trump sat between British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela during Friday morning’s leader retreat and was seen chatting with the British Prime Minister. Putin was seated next to Pena Nieto. Trump, who flew to Germany from Poland on Thursday afternoon, met with Merkel upon landing and had dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The White House was aware of the stakes for Friday. Top aides have worked for weeks to prepare for this encounter with Putin, known for his craft on the international stage, and experts have suggested the White House be prepared for a curveball from the Russian president.
Trump and Putin, before their official sit-down at the G20, briefly met and shook hands in what appeared — according to video posted by the German government — to be a collegial encounter.
Trump approaches Putin in the video as the Russian president stands at a high table during an introductory reception at the G20. Trump extends his hand and a smiling Putin takes it. Trump pats the Russian president’s arm with his left hand during the greeting.
In another clip of video, the men stand side-by-side, smiling broadly. Trump then pats Putin on the back before the video cuts away. Any Trump-Putin meeting — whether official or unofficial — would be tense as both have pestered each other in the lead-up to the G20. Trump chided Russia’s use of energy as a coercive force and for its actions in Eastern Ukraine on Thursday in Poland, while Putin subtly jabbed Trump’s trade policies on the sidelines of the summit, according to the Russian state-run media.
“When discussing the situation in the global economy, the Russian side intends to focus on issues regarding ensuring positive dynamics of global trade,” Putin said. “We oppose the growing policy of protectionism in the world.”
Trump has championed more protectionist policies as President.
Trump’s meeting with Putin is surely critical. Friday’s meeting was stacked with possibly tense conversations for Trump,
Because much of the G20 happens out of sight from the media, optics will likely dictate how Trump’s meetings with world leaders — particularly with Putin — will be viewed.
Election meddling wasn’t an expected topic
There was little expectation heading into the meeting on the American side that Trump would bring up Russia’s 2016 election activities.
Trump said Thursday that Russia could have been behind efforts to influence the election but suggested the finger can be pointed elsewhere as well and that “nobody really knows for sure.”
“I think it very well could be Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries,” Trump said during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Russia has denied any involvement.
US intelligence agencies concluded in a report released earlier this year that Russia ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election.
Trump, though, needled Putin in Poland, giving a well-received speech that strongly backed Article 5, the principle that dictates an attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of NATO.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the Russian president took Trump’s comments from Poland “into consideration” as he prepared for conversation.