In what may well have been the most eagerly anticipated diplomatic meeting in recent history, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met for more than two hours on Friday, in Hamburg, Germany, on the fringes of the G-20 summit. The meeting began at 4:15 P.M. local time. Outside on the streets, anarchist protesters were engaged in the time-honored summit ritual of lobbing bottles at riot police, who, in turn, followed the usual protocol by loosing off some water cannons. Inside the Messehallen Convention Center, which is near Hamburg’s notorious red-light district, all was calm—or so it seemed from the television broadcasts.
Footage from the Trump-Putin meeting showed the two principals seated alongside each other in boxy white armchairs, which looked too low to be comfortable. The only other people in the room were Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State; Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister; and a pair of translators.
Trump had nine bilateral meetings scheduled for Friday, but his sitdown with Putin was the one that everybody was interested in. What would the rapport be like between these two self-styled strongmen? How would they deal with Syria, where U.S. and Russian forces are both engaged? Would Trump persuade Putin to help him out in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat? Would he bring up Russian interference in the election? Or compliment Putin on his treatment of the Russian press?
Putin, for his part, is known to prepare carefully for these types of meetings, and to tailor his message to the identity of his interlocutor. Some White House officials were reportedly so worried about the Russian leader taking advantage of Trump that they wanted to expand the meeting to involve other aides, such as H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on the National Security Council. Ultimately, though, all staffers were excluded from the meeting—there weren’t even any official note-takers in the room. (On social media, some of Trump’s critics lightheartedly noted that this would make it easier for the President to slip some state secrets to Putin, or perhaps promise him Alaska in exchange for a new hotel in Moscow.)
Shortly after the meeting began, members of the media were briefly admitted into the room. Trump spoke first, and he employed his usual hyperbole. “President Putin and I have been discussing various things, and I think it is going very, very well,” he said. “We look forward to a lot of positive things happening—for Russia, for the United States, and for everybody concerned.” Then Trump declared that it was an “honor” to be with Putin, and shook hands with the Russian leader. Putin, who looked a little sheepish, noted that he and Trump had spoken on the phone several times and added, “A phone conversation is never enough . . . definitely, we need personal meetings.” Then the two shook hands again.
After the journalists left, the talks went on and on. As the world waited, it was tempting to speculate on why the confab was lasting so long. Putin chooses his words carefully; Trump, even now, is known to regale almost everyone he meets with details of his election victory. Maybe that was it. We know that 2016 was on Trump’s mind because, on Friday morning, he tweeted, “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” In a magisterial response, Podesta replied, “Pulled in for a pit stop in E. Fairmont W. Va. to see that our whack job POTUS @realDonaldTrump is tweeting about me at the G20. Get a grip man, the Russians committed a crime when they stole my emails to help get you elected President. Maybe you might try to find a way to mention that to President Putin.”
Evidently, Trump didn’t take Podesta’s advice directly. But when Tillerson personally delivered the post-meeting readout to reporters, he said that Trump had started out “by raising the concern of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Tillerson went on: “The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.” The Russian leader also asked the U.S. side to provide proof of Russian involvement, Tillerson said.
Since Trump said as recently as Thursday that “nobody really knows” who interfered in the election, he was hardly in a position to contradict Putin’s denials, even if he had wanted to. In any case, Tillerson made clear that really confronting Putin, or punishing him, was far from the President's intention. “He pressed him and then felt like, at this point let’s talk about, how do we go forward?” Tillerson said. The two leaders then moved onto other issues, including Syria, for which they discussed a new ceasefire that is supposed to go into effect in the southeast of the country, Tillerson said. “There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. . . . There was not a lot of re-litigating of the past,” he said. Indeed, the talks had gone so well that they continued even after Melania Trump, the First Lady, was sent in at the hour mark to break things up.
It should be noted that Lavrov, Tillerson’s opposite counterpart, put a very different spin on the meeting when he spoke to reporters. Lucian Kim, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, tweeted, “Lavrov: Trump mentioned that in US certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof.” In another tweet, Kim said, “Lavrov: Trump said he heard Putin’s statements that Russia didn’t hack election and accepts them.”
Without access to a transcript, which seemingly doesn’t exist, it was hard to know what to make of these two accounts of the meeting, or whether they can be reconciled. But a few things did seem clear.
Putin had got what he wanted from the meeting: a commitment from the U.S. to move on from the election controversy and normalize relations. In addition to working toward a ceasefire in Syria, Lavrov said that the two sides had agreed to name new ambassadors, establish a working group on cybersecurity, and open a channel of discussion about Ukraine. Speaking to Russian reporters, Putin himself said, “We’ve had a very long discussion with the U.S. President. Many issues accrued, including Ukraine, Syria, and other problems, as well as some bilateral issues.” He didn’t mention anything about Trump bringing up Russian meddling.
Trump, for his part, could claim that he had raised the question of Russian interference, even if he did so only in the most perfunctory of fashions. But, in substantive terms, what had he gotten back from Putin? There was no word from Tillerson on any Russian concessions on North Korea, a pressing issue on which Moscow has sided with Beijing in opposing further U.N. sanctions. Indeed, Lavrov mentioned North Korea as one of two issues the two sides couldn’t agree on. (The other one Lavrov mentioned was the returning of Russian diplomatic compounds.) The one concrete sign of coöperation was on Syria, and it remained to be seen what, if anything, that really amounted to.
Trump, surely, will eventually offer his own interpretation of the meeting and his impressions of Putin, a man he has frequently expressed admiration for in the past. But on Friday night he was busy attending an official dinner and a concert featuring the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The Presidential Twitter readout would have to wait.