President Donald Trump opened Friday’s meeting with Vladimir Putin by pressing the Russian ruler on his country’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told press at a briefing Friday evening.
At their first meeting, coinciding with the G20 summit, Trump pressed Putin on the election tampering more than once in their 2 1/4 hours together, Tillerson told news outlets — which were taken by surprise by the news.
“The president opened the meeting with President Putin by raising the concerns of the American people regarding the 2016 election,” Tillerson said, calling it a “robust” and “lengthy” exchange.
“President Putin denied such involvement” and asked for “proof” of Russian tampering, reported Tillerson, who was in the room with Trump and Putin during the meeting. Trump, he insisted, did not accept Putin’s denial.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who also was in the room, remembers it differently. He says Trump accepted Putin’s assurances Russia did not meddle in the U.S. election, the AP reports. So there’s that.
According to Tillerson, the two leaders said the subject was a “substantial hindrance” in their relationship but agreed to work on “commitments of non-interference.”
Trump took note of sanctions against Russia that have been voted out of the Senate, to make clear the seriousness of the issue, Tillerson told reporters. Given how unlikely it is Putin ever will acknowledge the meddling, “The two presidents focused, and I think rightly so, on how do we move forward from here,” he added.
Russian news agency Tass reports that Putin said they discussed Syria, Ukraine, counterterrorism and “cyber crime.”
Tillerson reported that the two men agreed Syrian President Bashar Assad would leave office eventually. Russia supports Assad in Syria’s war; the U.S. supports rebels who have been fighting his regime.
Tillerson also made note of the two countries’ formal announcement that they had reached agreement on a cease-fire in southwest Syria. It will take effect at noon Sunday, Damascus time.