President Donald Trump yesterday confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin directly over Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, as the two leaders sought to use their historic first meeting to move past the issue and forge closer co-operation on Syria.
In a two-hours-plus meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Mr Trump and Mr Putin had a “robust and lengthy” discussion about the interference, though Mr Putin denied involvement, said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
His Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said Mr Trump had accepted Mr Putin’s assurances that Russia did not meddle in the US election – a divergent description of the conversation that illustrated each country’s effort to show its leader had held his ground.
“I think the president is rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point,” said Mr Tillerson, who took part in the meeting along with Mr Lavrov.
The two leaders also discussed a ceasefire deal for southwestern Syria that was reached by Russia and the US. Though the US and Russia have held conflicting views on Syria in the past, Mr Tillerson said Russia had an interest in seeing the Middle East nation become a stable place.
Mr Tillerson also said details about the ceasefire would need to be worked out. Lavrov added that Russian military police would monitor the truce.
Mr Trump’s decision to raise the issue of election meddling directly with Mr Putin also fulfilled demands from US politicians of both parties that the president not shy away from the issue in his meeting with the Russian leader.
The US president has avoided stating unequivocally in the past that Russia interfered, even as investigations proceed into whether Mr Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians who sought to help him win.
Mr Tillerson said: “The issue has become a hindrance to better relations between the two powers.”
The two leaders agreed to continue the discussion, with an eye toward securing a commitment that Russia will not interfere in US affairs in the future, he added.
However, the Russians asked for “proof and evidence” of Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 election. Just a day earlier, Mr Trump had said Russia probably meddled in the election.
With the world watching closely for signs of their emerging rapport, Mr Trump and Mr Putin shook hands firmly but briefly.
Mr Putin rubbed his fingers together as he listened to Mr Trump, who appeared informal and relaxed, and said it was “an honour” to be with his Russian counterpart.
“We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Putin, too, described the mere fact they were meeting as positive, adding that he hoped it would “yield positive results”.
“Phone conversations are never enough definitely,” Mr Putin said. “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.”
The meeting, originally scheduled for 35 minutes, lasted two hours and 16 minutes.
“There was so much to talk about,” said Mr Tillerson. “Neither one of them wanted to stop.”
He said that at one point, aides sent in first lady Melania Trump to try to wrap things up, but the meeting went on another hour after that.
“So clearly she failed,” he added.