President Donald Trump opened his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday by raising U.S. concerns about Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. He said Putin denied being involved. Trump’s decision to confront Putin directly over election interference fulfilled ardent demands by U.S. lawmakers of both parties that the president not shy away from the issue in his highly anticipated meeting with Putin. Trump has avoided stating unequivocally in the past that Russia interfered, even as investigations proceed into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians who sought to help him win.
“I think the president is rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point,” Tillerson said. Both Trump and Putin appeared determined not to let the issue obstruct future cooperation, though their aides offered differing descriptions of where they left the matter at the conclusion of their meeting, which spanned more than two hours.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who attended the meeting along with Tillerson, said Trump accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia didn’t meddle in the U.S. election. But Tillerson said the Russians had asked for “proof and evidence” of its involvement. A day earlier, Trump had said Russia probably meddled but that other countries likely did, too.
On one point, Putin and Trump agreed, Tillerson said: The issue has become a hindrance to better relations between the two powers. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Tillerson said the discussion about the election meddling was “robust and lengthy.” Tillerson said the two leaders had agreed to continue the discussion, with an eye toward securing a commitment that Russia won’t interfere in U.S. affairs in the future.
In their meeting, the two also discussed a ceasefire deal for southwestern Syria that was reached by Russia and the United States and first reported Friday by The Associated Press. Though the U.S. and Russia have held conflicting views on Syria in the past, Tillerson said Russia had an interest in seeing the Mideast nation become a stable place.
Though Tillerson said details about the ceasefire need to be worked out, Lavrov said that Russian military police will monitor the ceasefire, with a monitoring center set up in Jordan another party to the deal.
Both the Russians and the Americans took pains to describe the meeting as “constructive,” cordial and wide-ranging, covering key topics including cyber security and North Korea. Still, Tillerson said no next meeting for Putin and Trump had been scheduled. “The two leaders connected very quickly. There was a very clear positive chemistry,” said Tillerson. The former Exxon Mobil CEO has done business in Russia and is one of the only senior members of Trump’s administration who has prior experience dealing with Putin.
The meeting, originally scheduled for 35 minutes, clocked in at 2 hours and 16 minutes. “There was so much to talk about,” said Tillerson. “Neither one of them wanted to stop.” He added that at one point, aides sent in first lady Melania Trump to try to wrap up the talks, but the meeting went on another hour after that, “so clearly she failed.”
The heavily anticipated meeting has been closely scrutinized for signs of how friendly a rapport Trump and Putin will have. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, had notoriously strained ties to Putin, and Trump has expressed an interest in a better US-Russia relationship. But deep skepticism about Russia in the U.S. and ongoing investigations into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Moscow during last year’s election have made a U.S.-Russia detente politically risky for Trump.
The Putin meeting came midway through a hectic, four-day European visit for Trump, who addressed thousands of Poles in an outdoor speech in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday. He met in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit host, and had dinner with two Asian allies Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss North Korea’s aggression.