It was the biggest question hanging over Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin: Would he scold his Russian counterpart over Moscow’s alleged meddling with the 2016 US presidential election?
When American journalists shouted that question at Trump during the two leaders’ meet and greet, the US president ignored them and then made a joke in Putin’s ear as reporters left the room, according to pool reports. It wasn’t a great start if Trump wanted to appear to be standing on his own two feet.
After a lengthy sit down, both men then dispatched their foreign ministers to tell very different stories about what happened behind closed doors.
The dueling accounts
US secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Trump “began the meeting” by asking Putin about election interference and “pressed him more than once.” Putin, as has been his consistent line, denied involvement, Tillerson said: “It may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point.”
That’s not how the Russians told it.
Sergei Lavrov said (link in Russian) “president Trump said he heard president Putin’s clear statement that this is not true and that the Russian leadership didn’t interfere, and he accepts these statements.” What’s more, Lavrov said that either Trump or Tillerson (he couldn’t remember) said the “campaign” about Russia’s alleged interference has taken on “a strange nature.”
Why Putin wins
The White House wanted one message out: that Trump firmly tackled Putin on this question and they didn’t see eye to eye. Spotting Trump’s vulnerability, the Russian account made the US president seem pliant—and Tillerson duplicitous.
The BBC’s Moscow correspondent put it succinctly:
The lesson for Trump
Trump repeatedly refused to side with the unanimous view of his intelligence agencies, the officials he appointed to head them, and his own secretary of State. By never taking a clear line on the issue, he gave the Kremlin space—and they merrily jumped into it.