OSAKA, Japan — Since Donald Trump’s first day in office, Russia has loomed over his presidency. Yet every time he’s had a chance to cast aside people’s doubts, Trump does the opposite.
During a March 2018 phone call, Trump congratulated Putin on his reelection, despite rampant allegations of fraud and even his own aides’ all-caps warning: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” At a gathering of world leaders several months later, Trump reportedly said the contested Crimea region in Ukraine is Russian, despite his own administration’s condemnation over Moscow’s annexation of the area. And at a summit in Helsinki the following month, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s election meddling denials, despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin himself orchestrated the interference campaign.
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On Friday, Trump added to the list.
At his first meeting with Putin since Robert Mueller’s Russia probe concluded, Trump made light of the robust evidence showing Russia engaged in a “sweeping and systematic” campaign to disrupt the election in Trump’s favor.
After he was asked by reporter if he will talk to Putin about election interference — a topic he failed to mention himself, Trump responded: “Yes, of course I will.”
But he didn’t stop there. He turned to Putin, seated next to him, smiling and pointing his finger in the Russian president’s direction, and said jokingly, “Don’t meddle in the election, president. Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin, after appearing to hear the translation, laughed while Trump grinned.
The episode at the G-20 conference, an annual gathering of the world’s 20 biggest economies, will do nothing to ease the long-standing perception that Trump is too friendly toward Russia — a relationship that has alarmed Democrats and Republicans alike and led to congressional investigations.
But it could have been expected, according to his current and former advisers. Trump often bristles at being told what to say or do, they say. So when pushed, the president simply mocks what is expected of him, even when it comes to Russia.
And each time he refuses to conform to expected behavior toward Russia, it inevitably causes a firestorm in Washington. But Trump’s advisers don’t think the controversies hurt him politically. Instead, they think his strategy of branding all investigations into his relationship with Russia as a “phony witch hunt” orchestrated by Democrats and the media has helped defuse the issue outside the nation’s capital.
It’s unclear whether Trump actually did press Putin on election interference when the two leaders met Friday. A White House readout of the meeting failed to mention the topic, though it did note the two discussed several points of friction, like Iran, Syria and Venezuela. “Both leaders agreed that improved relations between the United States and Russia was in each countries’ mutual interest and the interest of the world,” the White House statement read.
Before he left Washington, Trump declined to tell reporters at the White House what, if anything, he would say to Putin about election interference. “What I say to him is none of your business,” Trump pushed back when questioned about the meeting.
“Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet, there is a very strong domestic backlash after that meeting,” said Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration and is now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “But, in part, it’s because there’s a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is.”
In the past, some of the meetings between the two leaders have occurred without U.S. aides or interpreters presents, alarming critics who worry about what Trump may promise Putin behind closed doors. But Friday’s meeting included members of both countries’ delegations, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who both serve as senior advisers.
Before the meeting, a senior administration official described the talk as a “normal event” focused on improving the bilateral relationship. “With regard to the message for Putin, I think the president’s message on election interference is well known and he will be repeating it,” the official said.
But Trump’s public comments on the topic have been opaque. Just two weeks ago, Trump said in an interview that he would listen if a foreign source offered him information on a 2020 election opponent, and might not report the overture to the FBI. He later tried to walk the statement back.
Although Trump appears to be reluctant to criticize Putin, his administration has repeatedly hit Russia with sanctions over issues like election interference and criticized Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine.
But Trump’s bonhomie toward Putin has continued into the G-20 summit. As he left for the event, Trump blasted host county Japan and India on trade but said nothing about Russia. And when the world leaders posed for a photo at the gathering, Trump walked and chatted with Putin, patting him gently on the back as the two parted ways onstage.
The feelings between the two leaders appears to be mutual. In an interview with the Financial Times this week, Putin described Trump — who he called “Donald” — as “a talented person” who “knows very well what his voters expect from him.”
Trump did cancel a meeting with Putin at the 2018 G-20 summit in Buenos Aires after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships with dozens of sailors, saying a meeting wouldn’t occur until the situation was resolved. Russia still has the ships, but Trump scheduled the Friday meeting anyway.
“He has said on a number of occasions that he was prevented from working more closely with Putin in the first two years because of the Russia investigation,” said Thomas Wright, a geopolitics expert with the center-left Brookings Institution. “This is the first meeting with Putin since the Mueller report. And so if his own remarks are anything to go by, we may sort of expect to see him trying to open up a sort of deeper period of cooperation with Putin.”