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Trump and Putin’s closed-door meeting yields contradiction on election meddling

July 7, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face meeting since Mr. Trump took office on Friday during the G20 summit, discussing Syria and North Korea, as well as Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Judy Woodruff learns more from special correspondent Ryan Chilcote.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the most highly anticipated meeting yet of the Trump presidency. For the first time since he took office, Mr. Trump was face-to-face with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

On the agenda? Syria, North Korea, and Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election, about which there is still disagreement.

From the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, special correspondent Ryan Chilcote reports.

RYAN CHILCOTE: What was planned to last just over half-an-hour turned into an unexpected two hours and 15 minutes. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin began their much anticipated face-to-face by exchanging visibly friendly greetings, given the state of U.S.-Russia relations.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to have a talk now, and obviously that will continue. But we look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned.

And it’s an honor to be with you.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): I’m delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr. President, and I hope, as you said, our meeting will yield positive results.

RYAN CHILCOTE: News of what was discussed came afterward from the countries’ top diplomats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, among them, allegations that Russia meddled in the U.S. election.

In an audio-only briefing, Tillerson said Mr. Trump brought up the issue at the outset, and said the pair had a robust and lengthy discussion.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: The president opened the meeting with President Putin by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward, and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process, as well as those of other countries.

RYAN CHILCOTE: Tillerson added, Putin denied any involvement.

The Russian foreign minister offered his own account.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): President Trump said that the campaign is already taking on a rather strange character, because during the many months that these accusations have been aired, there hasn’t been a single fact.

President Trump has said he’s heard President Putin’s definitive statements that is not true, and that the Russian leadership didn’t intervene in the election, and that he accepts those statements.

RYAN CHILCOTE: Yesterday, Mr. Trump conceded Russia likely played a role, but stopped short of blaming them solely for the election hack. Tillerson today said the Russians asked for proof of interference, but stressed, both leaders agreed it’s best to move on.

REX TILLERSON: The president’s rightly focused on, how do we move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point? And I think the relationship — and the president made this clear as well — it’s too important. And it’s too important to not find a way to move forward, not dismissing the issue in any way.

RYAN CHILCOTE: The two leaders also discussed a cease-fire plan in place for southwestern Syria.

REX TILLERSON: I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria, and as a result of that, we had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas.

RYAN CHILCOTE: Tillerson, though, reiterated the U.S. position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must eventually go, something Russia has publicly opposed.

All the while, outside today’s summit, there was no letup in massive demonstrations. Clashes between protesters and police engulfed Germany’s second largest city. Police again resorted to water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds, and scores were arrested. German officials say more than 100 police officers have been injured.

Meanwhile everyone here inside the G20 conference center, and, by that I mean, not just journalists, but a lot of the G20 delegations as well, are focused on trying to find out as much as they possibly can what actually was discussed behind closed doors between the presidents of the United States and Russia — Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re right, a lot of questions, Ryan, two hours and 20 minutes.

But, first, this contradiction that is apparently there, you have the Russian foreign minister saying that President Trump accent President Putin’s denial about Russian metaling and then, as we heard, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is saying they just — they are intractably in disagreement. So, how do we read this?

RYAN CHILCOTE: Yes, it’s an interesting one.

The straight answer is, we really don’t know exactly what was said. The Russian foreign minister, as you pointed out, did indeed say that President Trump had accepted President Putin’s denial. Now, I thought about this. You could have theoretically accept something without concurring with the view.

But that’s not what happened here. I listened to all of the Russian foreign minister’s comments. I have been speaking Russian for 28 years. And together with a group of six native speakers, we went through the entire statement on the issue.

He went much further. He said, right, that President Trump has also asserted in this meeting that he hadn’t heard a single fact in the month of allegations of meddling in the election.

Now, how does that meddle — sort of fit in with what Rex Tillerson was saying? Well, interesting, the U.S. secretary of state kind of gave us some mixed signals, didn’t he? On one the hand, he began the press conference by saying that President Trump had really pressed President Putin and pushed him on this issue, but he also said — and I quote — “The two presidents didn’t relitigate the past, that they were committed to working towards the future.”

And it was the U.S.’ position that the best way to do that was to try in the future to win some kind of guarantee, some kind of commitment in writing from the Russians that they wouldn’t interfere in the future in U.S. domestic policy or elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn you to Syria.

After the meeting, it was announced that the two countries have agreed on a cease-fire for a part of Syria and that ongoing civil war. What do we know about the details of that?

RYAN CHILCOTE: So, what we know is that both the United States and Russia have been discussing this for some time. It looks like most of the agreement was worked out in advance. They signed a memorandum of understanding between Russia, the United States and Jordan that they would have a cease-fire that will begin shortly in the south in Syria, and that there would be a plan to de-escalate or lower, reduce the violence in the southwest of the country.

The secretary of state did say that there was still a couple more meetings that were necessary, maybe another week to work out the details of who would actually be providing security on the ground.

And I would point out that, remember, it’s not just Russia and the United States that have forces in Syria. Iran does as well. So it would be interesting to see how they fit into this agreement. And I would also point out that we have had four cease-fire agreements before this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: True.

Ryan, finally, so many journalists there and others watching this meeting today between the Russian and the U.S. president. What are people taking away? What did you take away from this, I mean, in terms of how they addressed — how they looked when they were together, what they said?

RYAN CHILCOTE: Well, the body language was warm. There’s no doubt. There’s no questioning that.

You could really see that. President Putin, for his part, when he was speaking Russian, he was very differential. He was very polite. He was very — went out of his way to be respectful, calling President Trump “Mr. President” as he addressed him.

And then we heard from Rex Tillerson say that their chemistry was very positive, that they immediately, almost immediately took to one another. And, interestingly, I thought he also added that no one could stop the meeting, that several aides peaked in through the door to try and break up the meeting. And at one point, they even sent Melania Trump into the meeting to try and break it up, and that she too failed, and that the two presidents, despite everyone else’s wishes, went on talking for another hour because they so enjoyed the conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating that they ignored the first lady’s efforts to get it to stop.

All right, Ryan Chilcote, reporting for us from Hamburg, Germany, thank you.

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