Trump Questions Putin on Election Meddling at Eagerly Awaited Encounter

President Trump met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday.
JULY 7, 2017
HAMBURG, Germany — President Trump questioned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Friday about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, using their epic first face-to-face meeting to directly raise what has become a vexing political issue for the White House.

Mr. Putin denied any meddling, and aides for each offered differing versions of the exchange. But both sides said the two leaders quickly turned to a discussion of how they could work together, including on combating cyberattacks and de-escalating the war in Syria.

The meeting, which lasted for more than two hours on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting, was so all-consuming that even Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, failed in her attempt to pry the two leaders apart halfway through so Mr. Trump could keep his later appointments.

Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, said that Mr. Trump had confronted Mr. Putin in a “robust and lengthy” discussion and that Mr. Putin had denied involvement in any election interference. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia, the only other official in the meeting, said Mr. Trump had accepted Mr. Putin’s denial.

Both aides were trying to present their leaders as having stood their ground.

The relationship between the United States and Russia right now is so fraught, so mired in distrust, disruption, power plays and cybersabotage, that the best Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump could get away with was setting up mechanisms to talk about their differences.

Mr. Trump entered the meeting hoping to put an end to the scrutiny over his election. Mr. Putin wanted a way out of the Western sanctions that have hobbled the Russian economy since he annexed Crimea and interfered in Ukraine.

Neither got what they wanted.

By the end of the day, the two countries had taken only baby steps. There was a newly appointed American special envoy implementing the accords reached on Ukraine. There was another cease-fire agreement for a slice of Syria. There was some kind of unspecified process for a new kind of arms control — not nuclear arms, but cyberarms, vaguely focused on everything from election interference to the sabotage of each other’s computer networks.

Mr. Trump knew that any concession to the savvy Russian leader would lead to accusations that he was, in the end, rewarding Russia’s bold attempt to sway American voters. Mr. Putin, in the end, appears to have settled on a long game, convinced that his mix of information warfare, “active measures” and low-level aggression will ultimately get him what he wants, a restoration of Russia’s status.

It is far too early to know if even those steps will amount to anything; they seemed intended to show that each man regarded the other as someone they could do business with.

And Mr. Trump exited the meeting as he entered: with much of his country wondering why he has said far harsher things about his closest allies, including his host in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, than about the authoritarian leader he engaged for more than two hours.

The Trump-Putin meeting eclipsed the rest of the agenda at the Group of 20 summit meeting. But the talks with Mr. Putin oddly turned into a bright spot for Mr. Trump on the first full day of the gathering, where the United States found itself increasingly ostracized by other Group of 20 members on major issues, including climate change, immigration and trade.

The meeting itself was darkened by protests that turned violent on Friday as more than 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets, confronted by phalanxes of riot police with water cannons, pepper spray and clubs. Dozens were injured in clashes that left cars burned and windows shattered in parts of the city.

For Mr. Trump, however, the main focus, at least for part of the day, was trying to move past an issue that has caused him political problems at home.

American intelligence agencies have said that Russia conducted cyberattacks, hacking and propaganda designed to undermine Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, to help him win the election last year. The Justice Department has named a special counsel to investigate Russia’s interference in the campaign and whether Trump associates colluded with Russia.

In a stark shift, Mr. Trump, who had equivocated as recently as the day before over whether Moscow was solely responsible for the 2016 hacking, broached the subject with Mr. Putin, telling him that Americans were concerned about Russia’s interference. But he threatened no consequences for the meddling, and when Mr. Putin denied it, he agreed that the two must get past an issue that had become a “substantial hindrance” in the United States-Russia relationship, Mr. Tillerson said.

“The president’s rightly focused on, ‘How do we move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point?’ ” Mr. Tillerson told reporters after the meeting. He said the two focused on how the United States could secure a commitment from Russia that it would not seek to disrupt American democracy, or that of other countries, in the future.

“There was not a lot of relitigating of the past,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Russian officials provided an alternative account, asserting that Mr. Trump had accepted Mr. Putin’s denial of the election interference and had even said that some in the United States were “exaggerating” Moscow’s role without proof.

Mr. Lavrov told reporters that “President Trump said that he heard the clear statements of President Putin that this is not true, and that the Russian leadership did not interfere in these elections, and that he accepts these statements.”