G20 summit: Trump raises US election meddling in first meeting with Putin
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Washington/Hamburg: President Donald Trump led off his first meeting with Vladimir Putin by presenting the Russian president with concerns that his government interfered with the 2016 US election, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Yet there was disagreement between the U.S. and Russia immediately afterward over how forcefully Trump pressed the issue during the leaders’ more than two-hour meeting on Friday at the Group of 20 summit in Germany.
“They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson told reporters. “What the two presidents, I think, rightly focused on is, how do we move forward? Because it’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution of that question between the two nations.”
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at his own news conference that Trump accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia hadn’t interfered in the election, contrary to the determination of U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Trump said he’d heard President Putin’s clear statements that that wasn’t true and that the Russian government didn’t interfere in these elections, and that he accepts these statements,” Lavrov said.
A State Department official who described the matter on condition of anonymity said the Trump administration disputes Lavrov’s account, and noted that Tillerson said the two countries would continue discussions of the election interference.
The U.S. will seek “a commitment that the Russian government has no intention of, and will not, interfere in our affairs in the future nor in the affairs of others,” Tillerson said.
Only six people participated in the meeting: the two leaders, Tillerson and Lavrov, and a translator for each side. The Kremlin said the U.S. requested that the meeting be kept small.
Tillerson said Putin and Trump agreed to jointly examine cybersecurity issues and how to determine accountability for future hacking. The two countries must figure out how to “move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement, at this point,” he said.
Russia’s meddling in the election -- and allegations that people associated with Trump may have colluded with the Kremlin -- have dogged the president since his inauguration. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is heading a federal probe into the matter, after Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey in May.
The president has declared the investigation a “witch hunt” and as recently as Thursday raised doubt that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee and email accounts of Hillary Clinton campaign officials. Before his meeting with Putin, the president engaged in a Twitter feud with Clinton’s campaign manager over the hacking.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report January 6 that declared the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency had “high confidence” that Putin himself had directed a campaign to interfere in the election. Trump has questioned those agencies’ findings on several occasions, a point that Lavrov picked up on during his remarks.
“President Trump noted that in the United States some circles continue to pump up the topic of Russian interference in the American elections, though they can’t prove it,” Lavrov said.
Trump’s first meeting with Putin came at a low point in the U.S. relationship with Russia, which is complicating American foreign policy in eastern Europe, the Mideast and the Pacific. On Thursday, Russia and China together blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile. Russia is under U.S. economic sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine’s civil war.
Another flash-point between the U.S. and Russia has been Moscow’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. blames for a conflict in that nation that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.
After the meeting, the U.S. announced an agreement with Russia for a cease-fire in southwest Syria, a move that Tillerson described as an indication the two countries can work together to resolve the long-running civil war. Bloomberg
Nick Wadhams and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this story.