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President Donald Trump was asked to clarify his sentiments to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he appeared to make light of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“You have to take a look at the word. I did say it,” Trump said during a news conference in Osaka.

On Friday, Trump lightheartedly told Putin, “Don’t meddle in the election” when asked by a reporter if the topic would come up during their bilateral meeting. The offhand remark, perhaps an attempt at levity, drew swift criticism.

Trump said he had a “tremendous discussion” with the Russian leader, and suggested it came up again later in their meeting.

“I did say it, and I did discuss it a little bit after that, too,” he said.

When he made his playful admonishment against election interference, Putin sat beside him laughing. Trump’s aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also smiled.

It was hardly the serious confrontation that many of Trump’s critics – and even some officials in the US government – have been hoping he’d make ahead of the 2020 contest, which could be vulnerable again to foreign meddling efforts.

Instead, it appeared to be Trump’s way of injecting levity into what remains a deeply fractured Washington-Moscow relationship.

In the seven months since Trump last encountered his Russian counterpart, the Russians detained a former Marine on espionage charges and were accused by Mueller in his report of waging a “sweeping and systematic” influence campaign during the 2016 election.

After every meeting and phone call, Trump’s critics have accused him of fealty to Putin. In part, their suspicions are rooted in the veiled nature of those sessions, which have sometimes occurred without aides or even American interpreters present.

It’s also based on Trump’s general unwillingness to criticize Putin, despite his efforts that butt against American interests from the Middle East to Ukraine to election security. As Trump was traveling to the G20 summit, he lobbed criticism at Japan, India and Germany over trade and defense matters – but not toward Russia.