President Trump's challenge was to hold his own with his Russian counterpart
It may be months before the real winner of Friday's showdown will be known
The challenge for President Donald Trump heading into his biggest diplomatic gut check yet was to hold his own with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The stakes in one of the most eagerly awaited diplomatic showdowns in years were obvious as soon as they appeared before the cameras.
Trump, the rookie politician, sat solidly in his chair, with his jaw set, not looking completely at ease, with his fingers set in a triangle in front of his lap.
“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump told Putin as he shook his counterpart’s hand, after telling reporters they were having “very, very” good talks.
Putin, the global power player and master of the body language of the mano-a-mano photo op, adopted his usual, inscrutable expression, but nevertheless said he was “delighted” to meet Trump, at last in person.
Such is the opacity with which both sides deal with the media, that it may be months before the real winner of Friday’s showdown in Germany will be known.
But each side came away from the talks between their two alpha dog leaders, at the G20 summit, with some of their goals satisfied.
Trump sought to ease political angst back home by raising the issue of alleged Russian interference in last year’s election – amid accusations from US intelligence agencies that Moscow conspired to help him win office.
Both sides could hold up an agreement, along with Jordan, to back a ceasefire in southwest Syria as a down payment on future anti-terrorism cooperation.
The progress was important to Trump, because it gave him a dividend to justify his often expressed view that he could make deals with Putin and improve US-Russia relations.
The thorny issue of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its activities in Ukraine was addressed by the agreement of both sides on the appointment of respected former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker to be the US special envoy to the conflict.
Putin, whose political project is rooted in a desire to restore Moscow’s lost influence, respect and role as an integral player in global power politics, got to sit down, side-by-side, with an American leader for the first time in two years.
And from both sides, there was talk of a connection between Trump and Putin, and the hope that the relations between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, that have spiraled dangerously to their worst state since the Cold War, may at least have stabilized.
Post-meeting discord over election meddling
Yet within minutes of the end of the meeting that ran much longer than expected to two-and-a-quarter hours, the signs of future discord were already evident, with differing accounts of how the election issue was raised.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the only American official in the room apart from Trump, later told reporters in an off camera briefing that the President raised the issue straight away, triggering a “robust and lengthy exchange.”
It was a significant revelation, since Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on US intelligence agency assessments of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Most recently, in Poland on Thursday, he had suggested that Moscow was not solely responsible for the alleged meddling.
But by the time Tillerson spoke, Russia had already put its version of events out first – a lesson for the new White House in the sophistication of Russian diplomatic strategy and the difficulty of getting the upper hand.
“President Trump said he’s heard Putin’s very clear statements that this is not true and that the Russian government didn’t interfere in the elections and that he accepts these statements,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
A senior Trump administration official hurriedly told CNN’s Jim Acosta that version of events was not true. But the suggestion either that the US side was not being fully forthcoming about the conversation, or that Trump made any such concession to Putin, will only fuel the raging debate back home stateside.
Former White House press secretary Dana Perino quickly criticized the White House’s stage management of the meeting.
“Being 1st to read out, on cam, is an excellent practice for any meeting w/ foreign leaders. Joint press conf even better. Avoids distortion,” Perino, who worked for President George W. Bush, tweeted.
Meeting won’t end meddling controversy
Trump’s critics are also certain to raise the point that both the President and Putin seem to have agreed to disagree on the hacking issue and move on.
“What the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is, how do we move forward from here,” said Tillerson, announcing that the two sides were to seek some kind of future framework to make sure cyber hacking in elections does not happen again.
For Trump’s critics and many in the intelligence community, who believe that Putin pulled off an audacious effort to interfere in American democracy, possibly designed to deprive Hillary Clinton of the presidency, punting the issue forward is not nearly going to be enough.
It appeared that accounts of the meeting are likely to fuel rather than quell the raging political controversy in Washington as a special counsel investigates whether there was any collusion between Trump’s team and Moscow.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the foreign relations committee, said on CNN that Trump had erred by being so accommodating to Putin.
“Rather than rushing to say what an honor it was for him to meet Putin … President Trump could have made it clear at the outset that he thinks Russian meddling in our 2016 election was a grave matter of national security and he intends to take strong action,” said Coons.
Meeting was unusually small
One reason why intrigue will likely grow is the set-up of the talks themselves, which added to the impression that the White House wanted to keep a tight lid on accounts of what went on.
Instead of a full phalanx of aides, Trump, Tillerson, Putin and Lavrov were joined only by two translators in their meeting.
Usually for a bilateral encounter of this kind on a presidential trip, officials like the national security adviser, US and Russian ambassadors, top National Security Council staff and note-takers would be present.
“It’s typically bigger, when it is Russia, that has historically certainly been the case because the issues with Russia are so complex,” said former State Department and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, who is now a CNN national security analyst.
Having such a small group was certainly a political risk for Trump, who has little experience as a top diplomatic interlocutor and Tillerson, who has had many meetings with Putin as the head of ExxonMobil but is also a relative novice on the diplomatic stage.
“It’s always a risk when you go into a meeting with Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov,” Kirby said. “Even the best, most accomplished diplomats like John Kerry, there is always a risk when you go in there.”
Still, both sides left the talks hoping that they had laid the ground work for a more normal relationship between the US and Russia – an important consideration because the two nations have been slipping alarmingly close to real misunderstandings that carry the threat of a dangerous escalation.
US and Russian planes, troops and ships have been coming into close proximity along the borders of eastern Europe and forces from the two sides are increasingly nudging up against one another in Syria as ISIS territory narrows.
The lack of proper communications between the two presidents – notwithstanding the election interference furor – is something neither side wants.
So it was significant the US side said there was good chemistry between them.
“Once they met and got acquainted with one another … I think there was just such a level of engagement and exchange, neither one of them wanted to stop,” Tillerson said.
The secretary of state said first lady Melania Trump was sent into the meeting to try to break it up – but the President wanted to carry on.
It’s not unusual for US presidents to start out stressing the positive with Putin. Both Bush and Barack Obama sought to get off on the right foot with the Russian leader – but found that clashing US and Russian national interests soon ensured that their best laid plans went awry.
It will take more than a two-and-a-quarter hour meeting between Putin and Trump, to convince skeptics that this new beginning – at an extraordinary time of tension and intrigue in US-Russia relations – is not just another false dawn.