President Donald Trump came face to face with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday for the first time since the special counsel found extensive evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. When asked if he would warn Russia not to meddle in the next election, Trump wore a bit of a smile, pointed his finger at Putin and dryly said: “Don’t meddle in the election, please.”
The tone of the president’s comments were immediately open to interpretation but would seem to do little to silence questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that his campaign did not collude with Russia in 2016. Their meeting in Japan was the first time the two sat together publicly since their summit in Helsinki nearly a year ago in which Trump pointedly did not admonish Putin over election interference and did not side with U.S. intelligence services over his Russian counterpart.
The leaders traded brief remarks about issues they planned to discuss when a reporter shouted if the president would tell Putin “not to meddle” in the 2020 election. The president answered “Of course I will,” before he turned to Putin and said, “Don’t meddle in the election, please.” He playfully repeated request.
The meeting with Putin, which came amid a gauntlet of negotiations on international crises, trade wars and a growing global to-do list, was the main event on Trump’s agenda Friday at the G20 summit in Osaka.
But the president also kept an eye on the race to replace him back home, where 10 Democrats met in Miami as part of the first debates of the 2020 presidential race.
“I just passed a television set on the way here. I saw that health care and maximum health care was given to 100% of the illegal immigrants coming into our country by the Democrats,” Trump said, telling German Chancellor Merkel that a debate the previous night “wasn’t very exciting.”
“So I look forward to spending time with you rather than watching,” he said. Merkel did not react.
Trump had said in advance of his meeting with Putin that he expected a “very good conversation” with the Russian leader but told reporters that “what I say to him is none of your business.”
His aides had grown worried that Trump could use the meeting to once again attack the Russia probe on the world stage, particularly since Mueller recently agreed to testify before Congress next month, he did not utter the special counsel’s name.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had pressed the president to directly challenge the Russian leader on election interference and send a signal “not merely to Putin but to all of our adversaries that interfering with our election is unacceptable, and that they will pay a price — a strong price — for trying.”
The United States and Russia are also on opposing sides of the escalating crisis with Iran, which shot down an American drone last week. Trump nixed a possible retaliatory air strike and stressed Friday that the “there’s no rush. There’s absolutely no time pressure” to ease the tension with Tehran.
The Mueller report did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and the Kremlin to sway the outcome of the election. The finding lifted a cloud over the White House even as tensions have increased between Washington and Moscow. While Trump has long placed a premium on establishing close personal ties with Putin, his government has increased sanctions and other pressures on the Russian government.
At a summit last November in Argentina, Trump canceled what would have been the leaders’ first post-Helsinki meeting after Russia seized two Ukrainian vessels and their crew in the Sea of Azor. Those crew members remain detained, yet Trump has opted to forge ahead with the Osaka meeting, which will likely include discussions about hotspots in Iran, Syria and Venezuela, as well as nuclear weapons.
Trump said Friday alongside Putin that the fate of the sailors had yet to be discussed.
The leaders last year announced their withdrawal from a key arms control pact, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is set to terminate this summer, raising fears of a new arms race. Another major nuclear agreement, the New Start treaty, is set to expire in 2021 unless Moscow and Washington negotiate an extension.
But the backdrop, as always, will be Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Putin has denied that Russia meddled in the American election to help Trump win, even though Mueller uncovered extensive evidence to the contrary. At the news conference that followed the Helsinki summit, Trump responded to a reporter’s question by declining to denounce Russia’s election interference or side with his own intelligence agencies over Putin.
Trump opened the G20 summit in Japan by meeting with the host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He sounded optimistic about inking trade deals with all three and praised alliances he has strained in the past.
The president, who in the past has disrupted carefully choreographed summits by attacking allies and adversaries alike, made no public mention of his recent complaints that the U.S. military alliance with Japan is one-sided, that Germany was taking advantage of the U.S. on support for NATO and that India’s tariffs on the U.S. “must be withdrawn!”
Abe and Trump discussed trade and North Korea, while the three leaders spoke about enhanced security cooperation in the South China Sea and Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that Trump has put on a blacklist and is viewed as a national security threat because of the possibility that its equipment could be used for cyberespionage.
Earlier, as Abe officially received Trump, the president waved over his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both senior White House aides, to pose with him for the official welcome photo. Trump and Abe were later joined by Modi and the portion of the meeting open to reporters was convivial: at Trump’s urging, the three leaders engaged in a group fist bump.