President Trump kicked off his eagerly awaited encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday by confronting his counterpart about the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election, officials said.
Putin quickly denied he played any role in the meddling, and Trump just as quickly accepted his assurances that the allegations, backed by U.S. intelligence agencies, were false, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Secretary of State Tillerson offered a slightly different version of the sitdown between the two leaders, saying that Trump “pressed Putin more than once” during a “robust and lengthy” discussion about the interference.
Putin also asked Trump for “proof and evidence” that Moscow tried to influence the U.S. democratic process.
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Despite the contentious opening salvo and the divergent takeaways, Tillerson said Trump and Putin got along well.
“There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two,” Tillerson said. “There was not a lot of re-litigating things from the past.”
The two men appeared briefly before a phalanx of photographers ahead of their two hour and 16 minute face-to-face. They shared a simple, customary handshake and smiled as they praised one another.
“We’ve had some very, very good talks. We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned,” Trump said as he sat next to the Russian leader. “And it’s an honor to be with you.”
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Putin, through a translator, returned the pleasantries.
“I am delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr. President,” he said.
Officials on both sides said the two were anxious to move past the election hacking issue and focus on other matters, including a Syrian cease-fire set to begin on Sunday.
Though Tillerson said details have yet to be worked out, Lavrov said that Russian military police will take the lead, with a monitoring center set up in Jordan — another party to the deal.
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Both top diplomats described the meeting as “constructive” and cordial, covering key topics including Ukraine and North Korea. They also agreed to set up a “working group” to tackle cyber-security issues together, Tillerson said.
The pair, who were joined only by Tillerson, Lavrov and two translators, also discussed one of the Kremlin’s highest priorities: the return of Russian diplomatic compounds in Long Island and Maryland that the U.S. seized last year.
Former President Barack Obama seized the Cold War-era recreational estates and expelled 35 Russian officials in December as punishment for the Kremlin’s meddling in the presidential election.
No deals on the fate of the properties or other sanctions against Russia were made, officials said.
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As the lengthy exchange went over its allotted time, First Lady Melania Trump attempted to urge the pair to wrap it up, according to Tillerson — but the heads of state kept talking.
“Clearly she failed,” Tillerson joked. “I think there was just such a level of engagement and exchange … neither one of them wanted to stop.”
The meeting dominated discussions on the first full day of the Group of 20 conference.
Trump and Putin later joined other G20 leaders at a dinner at the northern port city’s philharmonic following a concert featuring the music of Beethoven.
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Melania sat next to Putin during the meal.
The regal evening was a far cry from the chaos that filled the streets earlier in the day.
Hamburg police said clashes with anti-globalization activists protesting the summit had left 196 officers with injuries.
But Trump’s meeting with Putin, a former KGB agent, was the highlight of the day.
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Trump has avoided stating unequivocally that Russia interfered in the election, a sentiment at odds with the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community.
The convivial meeting between the two leaders — as investigations continue into whether his campaign colluded with Russians who sought to help him win — did little to win over political opponents at home.
Democrats questioned just how challenging Trump could have been in his confrontation given his past statements about Russian interference.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Trump’s pressing of Putin on Russia’s efforts to influence the election “would have had much more force” if Trump hadn’t previously expressed doubts about who was behind cyberattacks.
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“It would also have had more force if he had not again criticized the integrity of our intelligence agencies, among whom there is unwavering agreement about Russia’s active interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Warner said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed.
“Working to compromise the integrity of our election process cannot and should not be an area where ‘agree to disagree’ is an acceptable conclusion,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, many of whom have called for a tougher line against Russia, appeared far more skeptical of Putin than the President.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “It comes as no surprise to me Vladimir Putin would deny what we know they did.”
Ryan said he doesn’t believe Russian interference in the election affected its outcome, but “nevertheless, they tried.”
With News Wire Services
With CHRISTOPHER BRENNAN
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