President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first direct bilateral meeting on Friday, speaking for over two hours at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the meeting started out with Trump pressing Putin on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“He began by raising the concern of the American people of Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Tillerson told reporters in Hamburg after the meeting. “He pressed him more than once.”
This is a notable turnaround for President Trump. As recently as a day before, Trump had said that while he conceded some Russian involvement, "nobody really knows for sure" what happened, despite the uniform agreement of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia executed a coordinated campaign to elect Trump. Tillerson said that the two leaders wanted to move on after the events of 2016, and that, since it would be impossible to come to an agreement, "the question is what do we do now?"
Based on statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the meeting, Putin assured Trump during the meeting that Russia had not, in fact, meddled with the U.S. election, and according to Lavrov, Trump believed that denial. Lavrov told reporters in a separate press briefing from Tillerson that Putin and Trump had agreed to a joint group on cyber-security.
The Trump administration has pushed back on Lavrov's account of the meeting, saying that Trump did not accept Putin's claim of Russian innocence from hacks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta at face value, telling reporters at CNN and NBC News that Lavrov's statements were inaccurate.
It is difficult to know exactly what went down at the meeting. Of course, top-level meetings like this one aren't exactly known for being open to the public, but beyond that, Trump's team decided they wanted a bare-bones staff going into the meeting — just Trump, Tillerson, and a translator. As a result, there is no clear record of the meeting, and everyone is left judging Tillerson's word against Lavrov's. The officials quoted by NBC News and CNN were presumably not in the meetings themselves, unless they were one of those three people speaking anonymously.
Regardless of whether Lavrov is telling the truth, it is clear from Tillerson's statement after the meeting that even if Trump didn't trust Putin's denial of Russian meddling, the Trump administration is not interested in enacting any sort of steep price on Russia for their behavior. "There was not a lot of re-litigating of the past," said Tillerson, implying that issues like the 2016 election, as well as the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, were not treated by Trump or Tillerson as important and worth dwelling on.
Since the election, Trump has spoken frequently of his desire to find a detente with Putin. And in some ways, this meeting provided some victory in that quest — the United States and Russia reportedly reached a cease-fire deal over the civil war in Syria, one of the most intractable conflicts in recent world history. But U.S.-Russian relations remain marred by the behavior of Trump and Putin during the 2016 election. And the mess after the pair left their bilateral meeting, with representatives of the two states putting forward conflicting versions of events, show that for Trump, Russia remains a serious problem.