Both Russia and the United States declared Friday’s first meeting between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin a success. But hours after the two sat down at the G20 Summit in Germany, the White House has found itself fending off criticism Trump had been too soft on Putin, as the Kremlin seemed to outflank his administration in shaping how the encounter is being presented.
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Speaking to reporters after the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the room with the two presidents, said that Trump had “pressed” Putin on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Almost simultaneously, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had also been present at the talks, told a separate news conference that Trump had informed Putin he “accepts” Russia’s denials that it was behind the election meddling.
“The president said that he had heard the clear statements of President Putin that it isn’t true, and that the Russian leadership had not interfered in these elections, and he said that he accepts these statements. And that’s it really,” Lavrov said.
That appears to be at odds with Tillerson’s account, but the U.S. secretary of state also suggested that Trump had indicated to Putin that he wished to move on from the accusations of interference, which he said had become a hindrance to better relations.
"The two presidents I think rightly focused on is, ‘how do we move forward?’ Because it's not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed upon resolution of that question between the two nations," Tillerson said.
“There was not a lot re-litigating history,” he said.
Tillerson added that the over two-hour conversation had revealed “very clear positive chemistry” between the presidents. “Neither one of them wanted to stop,” he said.
Taken together, however, Lavrov and Tillerson’s comments have prompted an outcry from some that Trump had effectively signaled to Putin he was dropping the issue, despite assessments from U.S. intelligence that Moscow had unleashed an unprecedented operation against the election involving cyberattacks and propaganda which many officials suggest could be repeated.
“For Secretary Tillerson to say that this issue will remain unresolved is disgraceful,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
“Working to compromise the integrity of our election process cannot and should not be an area where ‘agree to disagree’ is an acceptable conclusion. Congress and Americans of all political persuasions and parties should do all they can to increase sanctions on Russia and prevent the reduction of any sanctions by the executive branch,” he added.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow under the Obama administration, wrote in a tweet that: “Agreeing to disagree on the FACTS of Russian violation of our sovereignty is weak.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, however, was less phased by the comments, saying he wasn’t surprised Putin had denied Russia had interfered in the election.
“It comes as no surprise to me Vladimir Putin would deny what we know they did,” Ryan told the Associated Press.
The controversy recalled Trump’s last encounter with top Russian officials. During his May meeting in the Oval Office with Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, Trump later was alleged to have accidentally revealed classified information to Lavrov. This saw the White House caught flat-footed by the Russians, who released photos showing the president guffawing with his guests hours before the U.S. side managed to get its own photo out.
The White House said it had been “tricked” by the Russians into allowing in a Russian wire-agency photographer while barring American outlets from being present.
Today, the Russians seemed to move similarly quickly to set out their account of the event.
Putin himself gave the first remarks on the meeting, telling reporters in a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he and Trump had discussed major issues, including Syria and cybersecurity.
Lavrov spoke shortly after on-camera to reporters, where he suggested Trump had indicated his scepticism about allegations in the U.S. about Russia’s interference.
“President Trump, I’m sure either he himself or Rex Tillerson will talk about this, said that this campaign is already acquiring quite a strange character because for many months when accusations have been voiced, not a single fact has come out," Lavrov said.
By contrast, Tillerson, who began his news conference after Lavrov, imposed a no-camera rule on his briefing and a temporary embargo publishing the audio. White House officials, asked about Lavrov’s claim that Trump “accepted” Putin’s denials of election meddling, declined to answer for hours afterwards, despite the discrepancy.
Ahead of the meeting, many analysts had suggested the Kremlin’s primary goal from the meeting had been to be able to present the encounter as friendly. At the event, the two sides also agreed to another Russian goal -- a joint ceasefire in southwestern Syria, to be enforced by Russian military police with U.S. endorsement.
In Moscow, senior foreign policy officials lined up to hail the meeting as a success, saying it had halted the slide in U.S.-Russian relations and perhaps heralded a turn towards friendship.
“The results of the meeting of the presidents of Russia and the U.S., I confess, surpassed all of my, and I’m sure, not only my, expectations,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s senate committee on international affairs, speaking with the news agency Interfax.
“On many concrete issues, Russia and the U.S. are starting either to collaborate in practice or to discuss the most important questions that define the character of bilateral relations. In some sense that’s a breakthrough,” Kosachev said.
Another politician, Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the parliamentary committee on international affairs, cheered that the meeting “could mark the start of a process of halting the degradation in Russian-American relations.”
Aleksander Baunov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center and former Russian diplomat, said that given the low expectations, things had gone well for Putin.
"Diplomatically it’s ok,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s at least more than the expectations we had before.”
Despite the differing accounts of Friday's meeting, on Saturday morning Trump told reporters, "Rex and I had a tremendous meeting yesterday with Putin."