In their first official sit-down at the G20 summit in Hamburg Friday, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin kept talking long after they were scheduled to stop. First lady Melania Trump even tried to break them up.
“That didn’t work either,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of the six people in the room for the highly anticipated event.
In their scheduled 30-minute meeting, which ended up lasting more than two hours, the two presidents had a lot to unpack: the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which Putin continued to deny, and a precarious ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria, which goes into effect July 9.
In addition to Putin, Trump, and Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and two translators were also present. The reason for keeping the meeting so exclusive, an unnamed administration official told The New York Times, was to prevent leaks and ensure clarity of conversation.
But clarity was not the impression that Lavrov and Tillerson gave reporters during separate briefings afterward.
Lavrov said Putin denied any Russian involvement in the U.S election, and that Trump accepted his denial — despite the rare consensus within the U.S. intelligence community that Russia did, in fact, try to sway the election for Trump.
“Trump said he’s heard Putin’s very clear statements,” Lavrov said. “The Russian government didn’t interfere in the elections, and he accepts these statements.”
Lavrov also added that Trump told Putin some groups in the U.S. were “exaggerating” allegations of Russian hacking.
Tillerson, meanwhile, said Trump pressed Putin on the matter of Russian interference in the election right from the get-go.
“He began by raising the concern of the American people of Russian interference in the 2016 election,” the U.S. secretary of state told reporters. “He pressed him more than once.”
Tillerson also said that Putin denied Russian interference. “It may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point,” Tillerson said, adding that U.S. officials would develop a “framework” to make sure Russia would not meddle in American affairs going forward.
Lavrov said that Moscow and Washington planned to establish a joint working group to improve cybersecurity, a proposal that critics have responded to with a mix of alarm and amusement. It’s unsettling timing: a Bloomberg article published Thursday named Russian hackers as key suspects in a recent effort to breach at least a dozen nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Cease-fire in Syria
After the meeting, Russia, the U.S., and Jordan announced a cease-fire and de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria, one of the regions that has suffered heavy fighting in the country’s six-year-long civil war. The region borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Syria has been a contentious topic for U.S-Russian relations. While the Kremlin continues to back Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. has called for his removal amid allegations that he committed war crimes against his own citizens. Human rights groups have also accused Russia of indiscriminately targeting civilians in airstrikes.
But at the end of the day, Tillerson said, the U.S and Russia had “exactly the same” objectives — though he added that the U.S doesn’t see Assad’s reign lasting too much longer.
“We certainly made it clear in our discussions with Russia,” Tillerson said.