Trump, Putin face to face, hit ac­cord on Syria

But on elec­tion med­dling, what was said is in dis­pute

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - COM­PILED BY DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE STAFF FROM WIRE RE­PORTS

HAM­BURG, Ger­many — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on Fri­day dis­cussed bro­ker­ing “com­mit­ments of non­in­ter­fer­ence” in the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem dur­ing a lengthy face-to-face meet­ing in Ger­many, the first in-per­son en­counter be­tween the two lead­ers about Rus­sia’s al­leged role in the 2016 elec­tion.

The en­counter ended in con­fu­sion over whether Trump ac­cepted as­sur­ances that the Krem­lin was in­no­cent of any wrong­do­ing dur­ing the cam­paign.

Trump emerged from the meet­ing with a deal in­clud­ing Rus­sia and Jor­dan on a par­tial Syr­ian cease-fire. The

agree­ment would mark the first time Wash­ing­ton and Moscow had op­er­ated to­gether in Syria to try to re­duce the vi­o­lence.

The meet­ing, on the side­lines of the Group of 20 sum­mit, opened with Trump telling Putin it was an “honor to be with you.” In the closed dis­cus­sion, Trump pressed Putin “on more than one oc­ca­sion” on Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who at­tended the two-hour-and-16-minute meet­ing, told re­porters. The meet­ing was orig­i­nally sched­uled for 35 min­utes.

Tiller­son said “Pres­i­dent Putin de­nied such in­volve­ment” but agreed to or­ga­nize talks “re­gard­ing com­mit­ments of non­in­ter­fer­ence in the af­fairs of the United States and our demo­cratic process.”

Tiller­son’s coun­ter­part, Rus­sian For­eign Min­ster Sergey Lavrov, said Trump had heard out Putin’s as­sur­ances that Moscow did not run a hack­ing and dis­in­for­ma­tion ef­fort, and dis­missed the en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sia’s role.

“Pres­i­dent Trump said that this cam­paign has taken on a rather strange char­ac­ter, be­cause af­ter many months, when­ever th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions are made, no facts are brought,” Lavrov told Rus­sian re­porters. “The U.S. pres­i­dent said that he heard clear state­ments from Pres­i­dent Putin about this be­ing un­true, and that he ac­cepted th­ese state­ments.”

The two pres­i­dents, he said, are “look­ing for mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial agree­ments and not try­ing to act out some con­fronta­tion sce­nar­ios, not try­ing to cre­ate prob­lems out of noth­ing.”

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.

Trump told Putin that mem­bers of Congress were push­ing for ad­di­tional sanc­tions against Rus­sia over the elec­tion is­sue, Tiller­son said. “I think the pres­i­dent is rightly fo­cused on how do we move for­ward from some­thing that may be an in­tractable dis­agree­ment at this point,” said Tiller­son, who took part in the meet­ing along with Lavrov.

U.S. law­mak­ers from both par­ties had urged Trump to raise the elec­tion med­dling with Putin. But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader, dis­missed the out­come as “dis­grace­ful.”

“Pres­i­dent Trump had an obli­ga­tion to bring up Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in our elec­tion with Putin, but he has an equal obli­ga­tion to take the word of our In­tel­li­gence Com­mu­nity rather than that of the Rus­sian Pres­i­dent,” Schumer said in a state­ment.

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 in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter, af­ter Trump fired FBI 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 Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign of­fi­cials.

Tiller­son said they also agreed to a “de-es­ca­la­tion agree­ment” re­gard­ing a sec­tion of south­west­ern Syria. Jor­dan was also part of that agree­ment.

TRUCE SET FOR SUN­DAY

Syria’s lengthy civil war has left more than 400,000 peo­ple dead and led to the ex­o­dus of hun­dreds of thou­sands more. The United States and Rus­sia have sup­ported op­po­site par­ties in the war. Rus­sia has backed Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, while the United States has sup­ported and trained groups that op­pose As­sad.

Past cease-fires in Syria have not lasted long. Tiller­son sug­gested he was skep­ti­cal that the cease-fire would en­dure, say­ing, “We’ll see what hap­pens.”

The cease-fire goes into ef­fect Sun­day at noon Da­m­as­cus time, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials and the Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment.

Tiller­son said the un­der­stand­ing is de­signed to re­duce vi­o­lence in an area of Syria near Jor­dan’s bor­der that is crit­i­cal to the U.S. ally’s se­cu­rity.

It’s a “very com­pli­cated part of the Syr­ian bat­tle­field,” Tiller­son told re­porters.

Of the agree­ment, he said, “I think this is our first in­di­ca­tion of the U.S. and Rus­sia be­ing able to work to­gether in Syria.”

Lavrov said Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice would mon­i­tor the new truce, but Tiller­son

said that was still be­ing worked out. A se­nior U.S. State De­part­ment of­fi­cial said the two coun­tries were close to a deal on that is­sue and hoped to fi­nal­ize it in the com­ing days, rais­ing the prospect it could take ef­fect Sun­day with no clear sense of who is polic­ing it.

Is­rael also is part of the agree­ment, one U.S. of­fi­cial said, who like oth­ers wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly on the mat­ter and de­manded anonymity. Like Jor­dan, Is­rael shares a bor­der with the south­ern part of Syria and has been con­cerned about a spillover of vi­o­lence as well as an amass­ing of Ira­nian-aligned forces in the south of the coun­try.

Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment spokesman Mo­hammed Mo­mani con­firmed the ac­cord in a state­ment that made no ref­er­ence to Is­rael’s par­tic­i­pa­tion. Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and its al­lies will stay on one side of an agreed de­mar­ca­tion line, and rebel fight­ers will stick to the other side. The goal is also to en­able aid to reach this area of Syria, Mo­mani told state me­dia out­lets. U.S. of­fi­cials said the U.S., Rus­sia and Jor­dan had agreed on that de­mar­ca­tion line only last week, clear­ing the way for a cease-fire to be worked out.

The U.S.-Rus­sian ceasefire has no set end date, one U.S. of­fi­cial said, de­scrib­ing it as part of broader dis­cus­sions with Moscow on low­er­ing vi­o­lence in Syria.

Pre­vi­ous cease-fires in Syria have col­lapsed or failed to re­duce vi­o­lence for long, and it was un­clear whether this deal would be any bet­ter.

Tiller­son also re­peated the U.S. po­si­tion that a “long-term role for the As­sad fam­ily and the As­sad regime” is un­ten­able and voiced his be­lief that Rus­sia might be will­ing to ad­dress the fu­ture lead­er­ship of Syria. Up to now, As­sad has re­jected any pro­pos­als that would see him leave power, con­tribut­ing to an im­passe that has pro­longed the fight­ing in Syria.

FIRST LADY LOOKS IN

The meet­ing lasted much longer than ex­pected. At one point, Trump’s wife, Me­la­nia, en­tered the room to try to see whether it could wrap up soon, but it con­tin­ued much longer.

“We went an­other hour [af­ter] she came in to see us, so clearly she failed,” Tiller­son said.

The mood was ge­nial as Putin and Trump, sit­ting side by side, ad­dressed re­porters be­fore the meet­ing.

“We look for­ward to a lot of very pos­i­tive hap­pen­ings for Rus­sia and for the United States and for ev­ery­one con­cerned,” Trump said.

Putin, re­fer­ring to the phone con­ver­sa­tions the two pres­i­dents have had, said that “phone con­ver­sa­tions are never enough def­i­nitely.”

“I’m very glad to be able to meet you per­son­ally,” Putin said. “And I hope that, as you have said, our meet­ings will yield pos­i­tive re­sults.”

Putin and Trump did not ap­pear to re­solve the Krem­lin’s de­mand that the United States hand back two com­pounds that the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion seized in late

De­cem­ber in re­tal­i­a­tion for Rus­sia’s ac­tions in the U.S. cam­paign.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had al­ready in­di­cated it might re­turn those com­pounds, which for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion said were be­ing used to gather in­tel­li­gence, but Trump is fac­ing bi­par­ti­san op­po­si­tion at home.

The Se­nate re­cently voted 97-2 in fa­vor of a Rus­sian sanc­tions amend­ment to the Iran sanc­tions bill that “would re­quire strict con­gres­sional re­view of any de­ci­sion to over­turn or lift ex­ist­ing poli­cies on Rus­sia, in­clud­ing the re­turn of th­ese two dachas, and would im­pose new sanc­tions to de­ter Rus­sian ag­gres­sion against the U.S. and its al­lies.”

Dur­ing their meet­ing on Fri­day, Trump and Putin also had a lengthy dis­cus­sion of North Korea, Tiller­son said. He said Rus­sia shares the U.S. po­si­tion that North Korea should not have nu­clear weapons, but he added that Moscow has re­sisted ef­forts to cut off eco­nomic ties with Py­ongyang and iso­late the regime. Tiller­son said the White House was still work­ing “to see if we can­not per­suade them as to the ur­gency that we see.”

AP/MIKHAIL KLIMEN­TYEV

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin meet for the first time Fri­day in Ham­burg, Ger­many, at the Group of 20 sum­mit.

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