Trump, Putin face to face, hit accord on Syria
But on election meddling, what was said is in dispute
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.
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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.”
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet for the first time Friday in Hamburg, Germany, at the Group of 20 summit.