President Trump on Friday repeatedly “pressed” Russian President Vladimir Putin on Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, only to be rebuffed, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters.
At a separate briefing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Trump described the multiple investigations into Moscow’s alleged interference as “strange and bizarre” because thus far “not a single fact has been presented” to prove the charge.
Putin made “clear declarations” that the “Russian leadership and Russian government has not interfered in the elections,” Lavrov said, according to an official translation. And Trump “accepts the things that Mr. Putin has said,” according to Lavrov.
Tillerson, the only other senior U.S. official present as the two leaders held their first face-to-face talks, said Trump now aimed to “move forward” from the seemingly “intractable” dispute.
“What the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is, how do we move forward? How do we move forward from here?” the former ExxonMobil CEO said.
“I think the relationship — and the president made this clear as well — is too important. And it’s too important to not find a way to move forward,” Tillerson added, before stressing he was “not dismissing the [election] issue in any way.”
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Putin’s denial runs directly counter to a U.S. intelligence community finding, made public on Jan. 6, that the former KGB spymaster “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” and aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances” with attacks on Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival for the White House.
“They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson told reporters. “The president pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”
The secretary reported seeing “very clear positive chemistry between the two” in the meeting.
“There was not a lot of relitigating of the past. I think both of the leaders feel like there’s a lot of things in the past that both of us are unhappy about. We’re unhappy; they’re unhappy,” he added.
Trump and Putin met for two hours and 16 minutes, well past the officially scheduled 30 minutes, on the sidelines of the G-20 economic summit in Hamburg, Germany. The only other people in the room were Tillerson, Lavrov and interpreters on both sides — even though both Russian officials speak English.
Tillerson also confirmed reports that Russia, the United States and Jordan had agreed to a cease-fire in southwestern Syria. “I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” the top U.S. diplomat said.
He also said Trump and Putin discussed Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which resulted in Western economic sanctions, and the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“We did have a pretty good exchange on North Korea. I would say the Russians see it a little differently than we do,” he told reporters.
During a brief joint public appearance at the top of the meeting, the two leaders shared a handshake, smiles and small talk.
“President Putin and I have been discussing various things, and I think it’s going very well,” Trump told reporters, according to a pool report from the Washington Post.
Trump did not specifically cite Syria but said, “We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, and for the United States and for everybody concerned. And it’s an honor to be with you.”
Speaking through a translator, Putin declared that he was “delighted to be able to meet you personally” and that he hoped for “positive results” from the discussion.
“Phone conversations are never enough, definitely,” the Russian leader said. “If you want to have a positive outcome in bilaterals and be able to resolve most international policy issues, that will really need personal meetings.”
The two presidents ignored shouted questions about whether Trump would raise the issue of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. As reporters were ushered out, Trump leaned in to Putin and said something to Putin, who chuckled.
The light tone of their public remarks contrasted with Trump’s tougher language a day earlier in a speech in Warsaw.
“Today, the West is also confronted by the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence and challenge our interests. To meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes and cyberwarfare, we must adapt our alliance to compete effectively in new ways and on all new battlefields,” Trump declared.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran — and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” he added.
The meeting in Hamburg came amid multiple congressional investigations into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election, as well as a Justice Department special counsel probe into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow.
On Thursday, Trump conceded that Russia could have interfered — but suggested that some unnamed other countries might have been involved as well.
“I’ve said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia. I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere,” Trump said. “Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
Russia has “asked for proof and evidence,” Tillerson told reporters. “I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address, on the answer to that question.”
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