A sharp and sometimes bitter disagreement broke out between President Donald Trump and several G7 leaders over whether to allow Russia back into their club during a welcome dinner on Saturday, according to two diplomatic officials and a senior US official with knowledge of the exchange.
Trump, as he did in public over the course of the summit, ardently advocated for it, the officials said. As the leaders discussed issues like Iran and fires in the Amazon rainforest, Trump interjected and asked why Russia should not be included in the talks, given its size and role in global affairs.
That met sharp resistance from some of the leaders, principally German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They argued Russia had grown more anti-democratic since it was ejected in 2014 for its incursion into Ukraine, disqualifying it from rejoining the G7.
The dispute amounted to one of the most heated moments of this weekend’s G7. Afterward, Trump publicly insisted the gathering was marked by displays of unity and cooperation. While the leaders did hold amiable discussions throughout both the dinner and other sessions, the exchange on Russia was notable for the fiercely argued views on both sides, the officials said.
During the dinner, Trump argued repeatedly that his predecessor Barack Obama was to blame for ejecting Russia from the group, according to one of the diplomatic officials, echoing a view he has expressed publicly. He told reporters on Monday that Obama was “outsmarted” by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the invasion of Crimea.
The summit’s host, French President Emmanuel Macron, conceded it was important to maintain ties with Putin. But he didn’t go as far as the US leader, who grew more combative in his stance as the dinner wore on.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte backed Trump (perhaps relatedly, Trump praised Conte – who has resigned as prime minister – on Twitter when he returned to Washington).
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was less vocal. Privately, however, he is sympathetic to Trump’s view, according to two diplomatic officials.
The group, who were dining on plates of Basque vegetables and red tuna, couldn’t come to any kind of consensus, despite Trump insisting it’s better to bring Putin back into the fold. Merkel, Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were firm: as long as Russia is still in Crimea, it’s not up for consideration.
Trump asked the leaders, isn’t it better to have Putin here to confront him on it? But he was outnumbered by voices who told him it would give Putin legitimacy. Officials said afterward it didn’t sound like any minds were changed.
Trump left the dinner knowing more of his counterparts opposed allowing Russia to rejoin than agreed, and that he was outnumbered. One US official said he would have likely pushed for a vote among the current members if he thought he had the numbers on his side.
US officials said they believed Macron, in attempting to strike some middle ground, was trying to maneuver and ensure the debate didn’t get too heated, and that he did not agree with Trump in his view toward readmitting Russia.
The next morning, Johnson was overheard telling Macron his handling of the “difficult” dinner was “bien joué” – well played.
White House and Élysée spokespeople did not provide comment.
Trump later acknowledged there was disagreement on the matter, but insisted some other leaders agreed with him.
“Other people agree with me and some people don’t necessarily agree,” Trump said the morning after the dinner. “Maybe we’ll just leave it the way it is.”
In a solo news conference on Monday, Macron said there had not been a “consensus” on bringing Russia back into the fold and noted pointedly that G7 members must unanimously agree on such a decision.
Trudeau said: “Russia has yet to change the behavior that led to its expulsion in 2014, and therefore should not be allowed back into the G7.”