Parsing Trump's 2nd Putin meeting: 'Remarkable' and risky
Posted July 19
As the White House sought to downplay a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 dinner, experts fretted that Trump's cavalier approach to engaging with Putin could come back to bite him.
"Once again, the Russia fever has caught up with the media and everyone ran out and tried to create a story that simply didn't exist," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press briefing Wednesday. "It would be incredibly awkward for them to all sit at a dinner and not talk."
Foreign policy and national security experts see a different scenario -- one in which Putin got a private meeting with the President and no US record of what was discussed or what promises may have been made.
"They don't have a record of that meeting, what commitments might have been made," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former US ambassador to Ukraine told CNN's Kate Bolduan Wednesday. "As it is now, you see a gathering storm because there was no one there with him when he talked to Putin and now there's no way to prove what was said."
The G20 dinner in the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, was an opportunity for world leaders to socialize -- a break from the working sessions and formal bilateral meetings commanding much of the schedule.
The event stretched for nearly 3.5 hours as leaders and their spouses dined on turbot from the North Sea and Friesian beef cheeks, according to a menu published by The Associated Press. It was a relatively intimate event, with attendees seated around a long, rectangular table, dotted with empty chairs for those heads of state that opted not to attend. Translators hovered nearby, seated just behind their bosses.
"Halfway through, Trump gets up and goes around the table, sits next to Putin in an empty seat," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia group, who was told of the interaction by others in the room. "They start a very friendly and convivial conversation."
To communicate, Trump and Putin relied on Putin's translator. Trump's translator did not speak Russian. He spoke Japanese because Trump had been seated next to the Japanese Prime Minister's wife, according to a statement from the White House.
But while the official White House statement described the interaction as "just a brief conversation at the end of a dinner," three sources said the discussion stretched for nearly an hour.
Those recounting the conversation described it as animated and friendly, with the two men smiling as they spoke.
"What would've been normal is if they had chatted for three minutes or two minutes," said Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for Russia. "They carried on for an hour. That's remarkable."
It was remarkable enough for other world leaders to take note, particularly close US allies.
In private conversations, heads of state have confessed that they've been flummoxed by how to navigate Trump's unorthodox style and also build close ties with the US, Bremmer said. So they were particularly surprised to see Trump engrossed in private conversation with Putin.
"People are going to talk about that. They're going to gossip about that. That's exactly what happened," Bremmer said. "Especially because none of these leaders have relationships like that with Trump themselves."
US-Russia relations have been on particularly rocky footing amid Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election and ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. On top of that, Trump and Putin had already met for two hours and 15 minutes earlier that day -- a formal bilateral meeting that stretched far beyond its scheduled time.
In addition to unsettling US allies, experts said the risk of the informal Trump-Putin dinner chat was obvious: There's no way for the US to account for what the two men discussed.
"The real story here is this was an hour-long meeting. What did they talk about for an entire hour?" said Carpenter, who heard of the meeting from others in the room.
Trump's conversation with Putin could have hit on any number of issues from US sanctions against Russia to Syria or Ukraine.
The question of what exactly was discussed in Hamburg took on a new urgency for some Russia experts as Moscow ramps up pressure on the US to return diplomatic compounds in New York State and Maryland. Former President Barack Obama ordered the compounds be closed in 2016 as retaliation for Russian election interference.
On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, emerged from a meeting with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon and said he "almost" got the compounds back. So far, no agreement has been announced.
"I'm thinking to myself, wait a second, did Putin bring that up with Trump?" Bremmer said.
It's also unclear what assurances, if any, Trump could have offered Putin in private.
US officials told The Washington Post in a story published Wednesday that Trump has decided to end a secret CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels battling Bashar al-Assad's government -- a move that's sure to be welcomed by Russia.
According to the Post report, Trump made the decision before meeting with Putin at the G20. Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on the news Wednesday, but said she wasn't aware of that issue coming up in Trump's dinnertime conversation with Putin.
Trump has spoken about this in the past, including a November interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying he didn't think it was productive to be fighting Syria, which is fighting ISIS.
The Post also reported the decision about the program came nearly one month ago, ahead of the Trump-Putin G20 meetings. The decision also does not affect the Pentagon-led effort to work with US-backed Syrian rebels, according to The Post.
Trump's freewheeling style has only added to the unease among national security experts.
In May, Trump welcomed the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the US to the White House and proceeded to disclose highly classified information.
The President also bashed former FBI Director James Comey, who he had recently fired, telling the Russians that Comey was "a real nut job," according to The New York Times. Trump also told them, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off," according to The New York Times.
On one front, experts were in agreement: Despite the claims from the White House, an hour-long conversation goes far beyond exchanging pleasantries, especially when it's an hour with Putin.
"Putin is so skilled at this," Carpenter said. "He's so skilled at trying to form a relationship with someone in order to manipulate them. Who knows what he proposed."
The administration's decision not to disclose the conversation or offer a readout of the dinner only added to the intrigue.
After the conversation came to light, the White House released a statement Tuesday evening, saying, "The insinuation that the White House has tried to 'hide' a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd. It is not merely perfectly normal, it is part of a President's duties, to interact with world leaders."
On Wednesday, Sanders said it was "absurd" and "silly" to suggest the White House was trying to keep the meeting under wraps, noting that the dinner was on Trump's public schedule for the day.
Meanwhile, the President's own national security team may have few details as to what actually went on during Trump's private conversation with Putin.
If a tape of interaction exists, it's likely in the hands of Putin's translator, Bremmer said, leaving open the possibility that Moscow could release portions of the conversation -- perhaps out of context -- at its convenience.