Differing accounts of Trump-Putin meeting raise questions

Mr Donald Trump (far right) with Mr Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last Friday.
Mr Donald Trump (right) with Mr Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HAMBURG • The meeting between United States President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin - depicted by some as a diplomatic showdown - lasted for more than two hours.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it down to the "positive chemistry" between the two leaders who had "so much to talk about".

Mr Trump yesterday described the meeting as "tremendous".

Last Friday, he was expected to raise - and did raise - the vexing issue of alleged Russian interference in last year's US presidential election with Mr Putin, who denied the alleged meddling. The leaders then turned their focus on other issues, including how to combat cyber attacks and de-escalating the war in Syria, their aides said.

Yet just minutes after their meeting ended, signs of discord emerged as the aides offered differing accounts of how the election issue was raised, CNN reported.

Mr Tillerson, who was the only official at the meeting aside from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, told reporters in an off-camera briefing that Mr Trump raised the issue straight away, triggering a "robust and lengthy exchange".

So the differing US and Russian accounts of the meeting are likely to fuel rather than quell the political controversy in Washington as a special counsel investigates if there was any collusion between Mr Trump's team and Moscow, CNN said.

This was a significant revelation, since Mr Trump had as recently as last Thursday suggested that Moscow was not solely responsible for the alleged meddling, CNN said.

But Mr Tillerson was beaten to the punch by Mr Lavrov, who had already told reporters that Mr Trump had accepted Mr Putin's denial.

"President Trump said he's heard Putin's very clear statements that this is not true and that the Russian government didn't interfere in the elections and that he accepts these statements," Mr Lavrov said.

According to CNN, this led a senior Trump administration official to hurriedly assert that the Russian version of events was not true.

Former White House press secretary Dana Perino quickly criticised the White House's stage management of the meeting, CNN said. "Being 1st to read out, on cam, is an excellent practice for any meeting w/ foreign leaders. Joint press conf even better. Avoids distortion," Ms Perino, who worked for President George W. Bush, tweeted.

Mr Trump's critics are certain to raise the point that the two leaders seemed to have agreed to disagree on the meddling and move on.

"What the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is, how do we move forward from here," said Mr Tillerson, announcing that the two sides were to seek some kind of future framework to make sure cyber hacking in elections does not happen again.

But this is unlikely to satisfy the critics and those in the US intelligence community, who believe the Russians had interfered in the November election to help put Mr Trump in the White House.

So the differing US and Russian accounts of the meeting are likely to fuel rather than quell the political controversy in Washington as a special counsel investigates if there was any collusion between Mr Trump's team and Moscow, CNN said.

According to Mr Lavrov, Mr Trump also "mentioned that certain circles in the US are still exaggerating, although they cannot prove this, the topic of Russia's interference with the US election", the New York Times reported.

Senator Chris Coons said on CNN that Mr Trump had erred by being so accommodating towards Mr Putin. He said: "Rather than rushing to say what an honour it was for him to meet Putin... President Trump could have made it clear at the outset that he thinks Russian meddling in our 2016 election was a grave matter of national security and he intends to take strong action."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Differing accounts of Trump-Putin meeting raise questions'. Print Edition | Subscribe