Update: The meeting seemed more cordial than many had hoped for: Trump and Putin met Friday for the first time, the most highly anticipated sit-down at the Group of 20 summit, with repercussions for Trump’s political standing at home and security around the world in hot-spots from Syria to Ukraine. "President Putin and I have been discussing various things. I think it’s going very well," Trump said as the meeting began. "We look forward to a lot of positive things happening, for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned," Trump said, telling Putin, "It’s an honor to be with you." The Russian president addressed Trump as "your Excellency, Mr. President" and noted that the two men have spoken by phone several times. "But phone conversation is never enough definitely," Putin said. "I’m delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr. President, and as you have said, I hope our meeting will yield positive results," Putin said.
It’s the first meeting between the two men following Trump taking office in January, with the backdrop of a U.S. intelligence finding that Russia meddled in the U.S. election in an attempt to help Trump. The meeting included only Trump, Putin, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and two translators. The two leaders had shaken hands hours earlier at the start of the summit in Hamburg, Germany, and the U.S. president said in a tweet: “I look forward to all meetings today with world leaders, including my meeting with Vladimir Putin. Much to discuss.”
The agenda is expected to include sanctions against Russia for its treatment of Ukraine, as well as approaches to Syria, Iran and North Korea.
The meeting comes at a low point in recent U.S.-Russia relations, amid a federal investigation and congressional probes into Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential elections. Those probes have spawned related inquiries into connections between Trump campaign and White House officials and Russians.
Following their uneventful first 'handshake', Presidents Trump and Putin are about to begin their first meeting. While last night's media blitz was a distraction, there are five key things to watch for as the meeting plays out...
As The Hill reports, the encounter takes place as investigators search for any evidence of collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Kremlin. No such evidence has yet been uncovered but the backdrop makes the Putin meeting politically perilous for the president.
# What will Trump say about Russian meddling?
U.S. intelligence services are adamant that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Fired FBI director James Comey told Congress last month he had “no doubt” Russia was behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee and of high-level members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But Trump has been much more equivocal on the issue, which arose again during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday.
In response to a question about election interference from Hallie Jackson of NBC News, Trump said: “I agree, I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.” The problem for Trump is that failure to raise the issue with Putin will only fuel criticism from his domestic political enemies. The press already say he is too closely aligned with the Russian president. The Kremlin would, presumably, be happy to inform the media if Trump decides against talking about the topic at all. Trump has also criticized former President Obama in recent days, including at Thursday’s news conference, for not doing enough to counter Russia’s efforts last year. But the smart money is on Trump raising the issue briefly rather than making it the centerpiece of the meeting.
The president, who believes that he is not given enough credit for his win last November, is likely to balk at saying anything that might seem to buttress his critics’ case.
# Who will be in the meeting?
The meeting will reportedly be a small one, including only Trump and Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and two interpreters. Assuming there are no last minute changes, that means there will be no place for Fiona Hill, a White House advisor who is more hawkish than some other Trump confidants when it comes to Russia. Hill is the co-author of a critical biography of Putin, “Operative in the Kremlin.” There has been speculation that some within the White House orbit were pushing for Hill to be included in the meeting, in part to counter suggestions that it would be an overly chummy affair.
Tillerson is the recipient of a medal from Russia, the Order of Friendship, which he received in 2013. The honor was an acknowledgement of the extensive involvement he had with Russia in his former job, as CEO of energy giant ExxonMobil.
What will the body language be like?
Trump and Putin’s meeting will last approximately 30 minutes and there is no suggestion that the duo will hold a news conference, or even answer any questions from reporters. But any footage of the two together will be closely scrutinized.
Those visuals are likely to be the most memorable element of the encounter. It will be trouble for Trump if he appears too affable with Putin. Images taken by a Russian photographer of an Oval Office meeting that Trump held with Lavrov and the Kremlin’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in May showed the three men laughing together. That was unhelpful enough in itself for the White House, and only became more so when it was reported that Trump had disclosed classified information during the meeting.
At other times, the body language between Trump and other international leaders has been seen as frosty, most obviously during a White House visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March.
On Friday, many of the president’s supporters would welcome a little coolness in the body language between him and Putin.
# What will Putin do?
The Russian president has his own agenda going into the meeting, and it will likely include calling on Trump to ease or remove sanctions imposed on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, and for its alleged election meddling. It is possible that Putin could call for the return of two Russian facilities in the U.S, one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and another near New York City, that were closed in the waning days of the Obama administration. Trump’s leeway may end up being constrained. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill before the Fourth of July recess that would give Congress the power to review any easing of sanctions on Russia, ratcheting up pressure on the House to do likewise.
Substantive issues aside, plenty of people will be curious as to how Putin, a former KGB officer, will treat Trump. The Russian leader once brought his large black Labrador to a meeting with Merkel, who is afraid of dogs. With Trump, most people expect Putin to be more inclined to flatter and cajole rather than threaten.
# Any way forward on Syria?
Most experts believe this meeting will be more about each man taking the measure of the other, rather than reaching any substantive agreements. That said, in addition to Ukraine and sanctions, the other big issue that is virtually certain to come up is Syria. Prior to taking office, Trump argued that the U.S. and Russia might be able to create an informal alliance of convenience to “knock the hell out of ISIS.”
In April, however, Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield after a chemical attack for which President Bashar Assad’s forces were held responsible. Russia is allied with Assad.
Earlier this week, Tillerson opened the door to establishing “joint mechanisms” with Russia, possibly including no-fly zones, with the goal of laying “a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future.”
Can the two men find any way forward there?