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Why Trump and Putin’s undisclosed conversation is noteworthy

July 19, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
After President Trump sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7 for a highly anticipated meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, he met with Putin a second time for a lengthy meeting, that was unattended by advisors and previously undisclosed. Nick Schifrin reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On July the 7th, President Trump sat down for a highly anticipated meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

But, last night, it was disclosed that there was a second lengthy conversation later that day between the two leaders, one that the White House had not spoken of at the time.

Nick Schifrin reports.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It was a three-hour dinner party for the world’s most powerful people, 20 leaders, and their spouses. On the menu, turbot fish fillet, Friesian beef cheeks, and chitchat.

President Trump worked the room, and then took his seat. Diagonally across the table, first lady Melania Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two talked to each other with the help of Putin’s translator.

And as a dessert of raspberries and cheese was served, Mr. Trump walked over to Putin.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders today called their talk brief and informal.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: To try to create that there was some sort of private conversation in a room with 40-plus people seems a little bit ridiculous.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Nick Burns is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and veteran diplomat who participated in dozens of U.S.-Russia meetings.

NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: This is not a bad thing. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are the two most powerful people in the world. They barely know each other. They’d only met once before this G20 dinner, and it’s really important that they get to know each other and develop some capacity to have an effective relationship.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Last night, Trump blasted the media coverage, tweeting: “Fake news story of secret dinner with Putin is sick.”

The pro-Kremlin Russian lawmaker Alexei Pushkov used the exact same language, describing reports about a — quote — “secret dinner” as sick.

And, today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman called these dinner conversations normal.

STEFFEN SEIBERT, Spokesman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (through interpreter): It is the fundamental point of the G20 meeting that, alongside working meetings, there is room and opportunity for multiple informal contacts. And that is certainly the point of such a dinner.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But what is unusual is that, since there were no other U.S. officials present, and the translator was Putin’s, the U.S. officials who work on Russia have no official notes.

NICHOLAS BURNS: The people down the line cannot do their job if they don’t have an exact sense of what our president said, what the other guy said, and how they can then pursue these issues with the Russian government.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The dinner talk came on the same day as Trump and Putin’s only official meeting. That talk lasted more than two hours. The next day, having spoken with Trump at least twice, Putin praised Trump personally.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): As for personal relations, I think that they have been established. I don’t know how this will sound, but I will say it how I see it: The Trump on television is very different from the real person. He’s very direct. He perceives his conversation partner very well. He’s a fairly quick thinker.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It is that kind of praise that many here in Washington find strange and concerning. Multiple administration officials tell the NewsHour they have still not received a report from the official Trump-Putin meeting, let alone the dinner conversation. That is not business as usual.

NICHOLAS BURNS: President Trump has put together, I think, the weakest policy on Russia in 70 years. It’s why you have seen so many people concerned by this one conversation. What did President Trump say to President Putin? People in our government need to know the answers to those questions, and we as citizens need those answers as well.

NICK SCHIFRIN: A dinnertime conversation might not be out of the ordinary, except the president’s 2016 campaign is under investigation for possibly colluding with Russia. And the man he was talking to is accused by U.S. intelligence of ordering the covert effort to help Trump get elected.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Nick Schifrin in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the Senate Judiciary Committee said that Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort will testify next Wednesday about their meeting with a Russian lawyer last summer. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday.

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