Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, briefed reporters in Hamburg on the discussion. Tillerson said Trump had begun the meeting by pressing Putin about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“The president opened the meeting by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in 2016 election. Putin denied such involvement, as he has done in the past,” Tillerson said. He said that Trump had returned to the topic more than once during the meeting. (As the meeting ran over, first lady Melania Trump was reportedly sent inside in an unsuccessful attempt to get the men to wrap up.)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also briefing reporters in Hamburg, agreed that Trump had brought up the accusations, but that Trump had accepted Putin’s version of the events, which is that Russia is innocent of any involvement. U.S. officials denied that. He also claimed Trump had dismissed the allegations: “Trump mentioned that in U.S. certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof.”
It’s hard to know what to believe. Lavrov and Russia have obvious motivation to lie about what happened. But Trump has repeatedly shown that despite his bluster about being a tough negotiator, he can be easily persuaded by foreign leaders during face-to-face meetings, abandoning long-held positions when effectively debated by a counterpart. (This is one reason that Putin, like other foreign leaders, was so eager to meet in person.)
Moreover, Trump’s own view on the interference in the election remains opaque. He has never fully accepted the judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies and most of his own aides that Russia was behind hacking of email accounts and other feints. Most recently, on Thursday in Warsaw, Trump suggested that Russia might have been involved but might not have been alone, and concluded, “Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
Since Tillerson has been faster to accept Russian interference, he of course has his own motivation for establishing a narrative that Trump also accepts it. But Tillerson also signaled that the U.S. was focused on “how to we move forward from here, because it's not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution.” While well short of accepting Russia’s account, that does veer toward agreeing to disagree and move on, which would also be a victory for the Kremlin. But in the context of this unresolved disagreement, the establishment of a cybersecurity working group with the two countries is somewhere between a head-scratcher and a punchline.
Lavrov chose to deliver his remarks to reporters on camera; Tillerson, in contrast, insisted on an off-camera briefing, though audio recordings were allowed. Tillerson has repeatedly shied away from media. On a trip to Asia, he blocked the standard press pool, traveling instead with only a single American reporter, from a friendly conservative outlet. But the decision backfired on Tillerson, as confusion and erroneous reports from local press came to shape the trip, and there were no U.S. reporters around to correct them.