The two leaders appeared jovial and barely struck a sour note in the meeting, but who had the upper hand — Mr Trump or Mr Putin? (AP: German Government)
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly had plenty to talk about in their highly-anticipated meeting, which was scheduled for 30 minutes and ran for more than two hours.
Mr Trump, we’re told, opened the meeting by pressing Mr Putin on whether Russia meddled in the US election last year.
“The President opened the meeting by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the meeting, said afterwards.
“The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement as I think he has in the past.
“The two leaders agreed though that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-US relationship forward and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of non-interference.”
The White House later denied a claim from Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (who was also in the meeting) that Mr Trump accepted Mr Putin’s denial.
Trump and Putin’s ‘positive chemistry’
The meeting was billed by the Kremlin as a simple “get to know you” encounter, which warned against expecting too much.
Mr Trump’s language beforehand though, was upbeat.
@realDonaldTrump tweets: “I look forward to all my meetings today with world leaders, including my meeting with Vladimir Putin. Much to discuss.”
“We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, and for the United States and for everybody concerned,” Mr Trump told Mr Putin.
“And it’s an honour to be with you.”
“Spasibo [thank you],” he added in Russian.
Mr Tillerson said the pair had immediate “positive chemistry” and were so engaged in conversation that they didn’t want to stop.
“Just about everything got touched on one way or another, and I think there was just such a level of engagement and exchange, neither one of them wanted to stop,” he said.
“Several times I had to remind the President. People were sticking their heads in the door. I think they even sent in the First Lady at one point to see if she could get us out of there, and that didn’t work either.”
At one stage First Lady Melania Trump entered the room, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) was also in attendance. (Reuters: Sputnik Photo Agency)
The ‘cloud’ hanging over the White House
Mr Trump came to office with an ambitious plan to improve relationships with the Russians and to work with Mr Putin rather than against him on issues like the Syria conflict and international terrorism.
But since he was elected, the relationship has deteriorated as the US has taken a more assertive role against the Russia backed Syrian regime.
Initially suggesting NATO was redundant, Mr Trump has now backed the alliance amid increasing friction between NATO and Russia.
Early Kremlin hopes that the US President may relax sanctions on the Russians over the annexation of Crimea and the backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine have evaporated as new sanctions are considered due to Russian hacking.
Even if he wanted to, Mr Trump would find it difficult to make any real concessions because of ongoing suspicions about election campaign collusion with Russia last year.
Any softening would be closely scrutinised, and politically difficult for the President who is already highly frustrated at the continuing Russian cloud over his administration.
That said, he downplayed the notion of Russian meddling when asked about it ahead of the meeting, echoing Mr Putin’s position that “nobody really knows” who was behind the hacking.
That’s despite multiple US intelligence agencies declaring that Russia was responsible.
Vladimir Putin told reporters phone conversations with the US President were “never enough”. (AP: Evan Vucci)
Putin plays a long game
There’s no doubt that the two men would have spent their lengthy meeting sizing each other up.
Mr Trump bills himself as an ace dealmaker, while former KGB officer Mr Putin is a famously slippery character who has dealt with multiple US presidents.
It’s likely he would have used the meeting to play the long game, with a plan to forge a relationship that can be used to make deals when (or if) the suspicions over the administration’s Russia links subside.
Unlike Mr Trump, he’s a veteran politician with a clear agenda to advance Russian interests, to return it to superpower status.
“We’ve had a very long discussion with the US President. Many issues accrued, including Ukraine, Syria and other problems, as well as some bilateral issues,” Mr Putin told Russian journalists after the meeting.
“Fighting terrorism, cyber security” were also talked about, he added.
Held up as a sign of things to come was a deal between the US, Russia and Jordan for a new ceasefire in South Western Syria to begin this weekend.
“I think this is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” Mr Tillerson said.
He said there were lengthy discussions on the future of Syria with the expectation that ISIS will soon be defeated. He says the US still sees no place for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in a post war Syria.
“The perspective of both of them was that this is a really important relationship,” Mr Tillerson said.
“[The] two largest nuclear powers in the world, it’s a really important relationship; How do we start making this work? How do we live with one another, work with one another?
“We simply have to find a way to move forward that was expressed over and over, multiple times.”