OSAKA, Japan (AP) — With a smirk and a finger point, President Donald Trump dryly told Russia’s Vladimir Putin “Don’t meddle in the election” in their first meeting since the special counsel concluded that Russia extensively interfered with the 2016 campaign.
The tone of the president’s comment, which came after a reporter asked if he would warn Putin, was immediately open to interpretation. But it would seem to do little to silence questions about Trump’s relationship with Russia in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
It was the latest remarkable moment for Trump at Putin’s side after meeting nearly a year ago in Helsinki, considered one of the defining days of Trump’s presidency, when he pointedly did not admonish Putin over election interference and did not side with U.S. intelligence agencies over his Russian counterpart.
The leaders traded brief remarks Friday, the first time they sat together since Helsinki, about issues they planned to discuss when a reporter asked Trump if he would war Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election.
“Of course,” the president replied. Then he turned to Putin and facetiously said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” He playfully repeated request while pointing at Putin. Putin laughed.
Trump said he enjoyed a “very, very good relationship” with Putin and said “many positive things are going to come out of the relationship.”
The meeting with Putin, which came amid a gauntlet of negotiations on international crises, trade wars and a growing global to-do list, was the main event on Trump’s agenda Friday at the G20 summit in Osaka. But the president also kept an eye on the race to replace him back home, where 10 Democrats met in Miami as part of the first debates of the 2020 presidential race.
“I just passed a television set on the way here. I saw that health care and maximum health care was given to 100% of the illegal immigrants coming into our country by the Democrats,” Trump said, telling German Chancellor Merkel during their meeting that a debate the previous night “wasn’t very exciting.”
“So I look forward to spending time with you rather than watching,” he said. Merkel did not react.
Later, while meeting with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, Trump segued from a discussion on the crisis in Venezuela to declare he had heard a rumor that the Democratic Party will change its name to the Socialist Party. “I’m hearing that, but let’s see if they do it,” Trump said.
There have been no such rumors.
Trump had said in advance of meeting Putin that he expected a “very good conversation” but told reporters that “what I say to him is none of your business.” The official White House readout released after the meeting did not mention interference.
Though the meeting occurred in the early morning hours back in the United States, some were quick to denounce the president’s comments. Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under Barack Obama, tweeted that he found Trump’s conduct “depressing.”
“Trump’s admiration and appeasement of Putin is so bizarre,” he wrote. “I can’t think of one concrete U.S. interest that has been advanced by Trump’s behavior.”
White House aides had grown worried that Trump could use the meeting to once again attack the Russia probe on the world stage, particularly since Mueller recently agreed to testify before Congress next month, he did not utter the special counsel’s name.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had pressed the president to directly challenge the Russian leader on election interference and send a signal “not merely to Putin but to all of our adversaries that interfering with our election is unacceptable, and that they will pay a price — a strong price — for trying.”
The United States and Russia are also on opposing sides of the escalating crisis with Iran, which shot down an American drone last week. Trump nixed a possible retaliatory air strike and stressed Friday that the “there’s no rush” to ease the tension with Tehran.
The Mueller report did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and the Kremlin to sway the outcome of the election. The finding lifted a cloud over the White House even as tensions have increased between Washington and Moscow. While Trump has long placed a premium on establishing close personal ties with Putin, his government has increased sanctions and other pressures on the Russian government.
At a summit last November in Argentina, Trump canceled what would have been the leaders’ first post-Helsinki meeting after Russia seized two Ukrainian vessels and their crew in the Sea of Azor. Those crew members remain detained, yet Trump opted to forge ahead with the Osaka meeting.
Trump said Friday alongside Putin that the fate of the sailors had yet to be discussed.
The leaders last year announced their withdrawal from a key arms control pact, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is set to terminate this summer, raising fears of a new arms race. Another major nuclear agreement, the New Start treaty, is set to expire in 2021 unless Moscow and Washington negotiate an extension.
But the backdrop, as always, will be Russia’s 2016 election interference.
The White House said after Friday’s meeting that the leaders agreed to keep talking about a “21st century model of arms control,” which Trump said needs to include China. They also discussed the situations in Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine. The U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides on all four issues.
Putin has denied meddling in the American election to help Trump, even though Mueller uncovered extensive evidence to the contrary. At the news conference that followed the Helsinki summit, Trump responded to a reporter’s question by declining to denounce Russia’s election interference or side with his own intelligence agencies over Putin.
Trump opened the G20 summit by meeting with the host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Merkel. He sounded optimistic about inking trade deals with all three, praised alliances he has strained in the past and expressed hope in dealing with North Korea.
The president, who previously has disrupted carefully choreographed summits by attacking allies and adversaries alike, attended a dinner Friday evening at the ancient Osaka Castle. He also sent positive signals ahead of Saturday’s talks with China’s Xi Jinping. He said he believed there was “a very good chance” they could make progress toward ending their trade dispute.
Earlier, as Abe officially received Trump, the president waved over his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both senior White House aides, to pose with him for the official welcome photo. Trump and Abe were later joined by Modi and the three engaged in a group fist bump at Trump’s urging.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire and Miller at http://twitter.com/@zekejmiller