Trump-Putin meeting broaches Russian role in US election

Washington and Moscow agree at G20 sideline meeting to ceasefire in western Syria

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and US president Donald Trump: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Mr Trump accepted Mr Putin’s claim of non-interference in polls. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and US president Donald Trump: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Mr Trump accepted Mr Putin’s claim of non-interference in polls. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

 

Never since Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev during the cold war has a meeting between a US president and his Russian counterpart been more anticipated.

Friday’s meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had been scheduled for some time. In the end it lasted for far longer than the 40 minutes initially scheduled, finishing after two hours and 16 minutes.

Unlike Trump, who has been in the job for less than six months and has no previous political experience, Putin is a seasoned political operative. With a long career in the Russian government and the KGB behind him, he has previously met Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama.

His meeting with Trump had added significance given Trump’s formerly conciliatory stance towards Moscow and the swirl of accusations around his campaign team’s links with Russia.

On the eve of the meeting in Warsaw, Trump gave mixed messages. While urging Russia to “cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere” he also implied that last year’s interference in the presidential election may not just be the fault of Russia.

“I think it could very well have been Russia I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere,” Trump said on Thursday. “Nobody really knows.”

Annoying comments

Trump’s comments annoyed many – including Sally Yates, whom Trump sacked as acting attorney general; she criticised the president’s “inexplicable refusal” to confirm Russia’s involvement.

But Trump’s decision to ultimately raise the issue of Russian interference during his meeting with Putin the next day took many by surprise and marked a significant development.

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson – a man who dealt with Russia frequently as chief executive of Exxon Mobil – confirmed afterwards that Trump raised the issue of Russian election interference in his opening comments to the Russian president, returning to the issue “more than once” during the meeting. According to Tillerson, Putin denied Russia’s role in the election interference. He also stressed that the United States was keen to set up some kind of “framework” to avoid this issue again, and that it was time to move on from the Russian controversy.

‘Positive chemistry’

“It may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point,” he said, noting that Trump was aware of the need for a constructive relationship between the world’s biggest nuclear powers, and commenting on the “clear positive chemistry between the two”.

 In a sign of the difficulties ahead for the relationship, almost immediately Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov offered a different read-out of the meeting, stating that Trump had accepted Putin’s claim of non-interference.

One of the most positive outcomes of the meeting was the agreement of a ceasefire in western Syria, with Tillerson reiterating the US view that Syrian president Bashar as-Assad should go.

In the short term, Trump’s decision to raise Russian meddling in the election will be welcomed domestically, but the issue is far from resolved. With special counsel Robert Mueller continuing his investigation into Russian interference in the election, further controversy over Trump and his associates’ links with Russia awaits.

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