Eight months after an American election that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway, President Trump and President Vladimir Putin sat for their first face-to-face talks Friday, a friendly encounter that ended in confusion over whether Trump had agreed to absolve the Kremlin of any wrongdoing.
Trump, believed to be the intended beneficiary of the Russian meddling, emerged from the extraordinary meeting — which ran so long that Trump’s wife tried to break it up — with a deal on a partial cease-fire in the Syrian war. 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 two nations for years. And the session offered little clarity on the question of Russian election interference, which had made this the most anticipated meeting between a U.S. president and his Russian counterpart in recent memory. Instead, both sides indicated that they wanted to move beyond the subject.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came away from the meeting saying Trump had heard out Putin’s assurances that Moscow did not run a hacking and disinformation effort, and had dismissed the entire U.S. investigation into the Russian role.
“The U.S. president said that he heard clear statements from President Putin about this being untrue and that he accepted these statements,” Lavrov told Russian reporters.
But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also attended the two-hour-and-16-minute meeting, told reporters at a separate news conference that during the session, Trump pressed Putin “on more than one occasion” on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Tillerson said that “President Putin denied such involvement,” but he did not say whether Trump accepted that assertion. Rather, Tillerson said Trump decided to move on because Russia would not admit blame. Tillerson said, though, that the United States wasn’t dismissing Russian responsibility and that the two sides had agreed to organize talks “regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Putin last year ordered a campaign of cyberattacks and propaganda aimed at undermining the American presidential election and helping Trump by discrediting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department has named a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Trump’s associates and Russian officials during the campaign.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties had urged Trump to raise the election meddling with Putin when the leaders met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. Afterward, some worried whether Trump had confronted Putin firmly enough. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, dismissed the outcome as “disgraceful.”
Before the meeting, analysts in both countries said any signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington could 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, told the Interfax news agency. “Absolutely definitely psychologically and possibly practically.”
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house, issued a statement saying that “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 been waiting for the first in-person encounter between the president whose associates were facing an investigation into possible collusion with Russia, and the Kremlin leader who allegedly intervened in Trump’s favor. But the presidents Friday seemed intent on moving the relationship past that explosive issue.
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 would prevent future political interference, Tillerson said, as part of a bilateral commission that would also discuss counterterrorism and the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.
Tillerson said they also reached a “deescalation agreement” regarding a section of Syria near the cities of Daraa and Quneitra. 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 United States and Russia have supported opposite parties during the war. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States has supported and trained groups that oppose him.
Past cease-fires in Syria have not lasted long. Tillerson suggested he was skeptical that this 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 see if it could wrap up soon, but it continued.
“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 things happening for Russia and the United States and for everybody concerned,” Trump said. “It’s an honor to be with you.”
Putin, referring to the telephone 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 that 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 United States give 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 that it might return those compounds, which the Obama administration had said were being used to gather intelligence. But Trump is facing bipartisan pressure 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 an 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 United States and its allies.
In a speech in Poland on Thursday, 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.”
He also repeated a position shared by Putin, saying “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.
Both of these statements align with the Kremlin’s stance on the election hacking.
During their meeting Friday, Trump and Putin also had a lengthy discussion of North Korea, Tillerson said. He said Russia shares the U.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 working “to see if we cannot persuade them as to the urgency that we see.”