OSAKA, Japan — At their first meeting since Robert Mueller’s Russia probe wrapped up, President Donald Trump playfully warned Russia President Vladimir Putin “don’t meddle in the election.”
The seemingly off-the-cuff remark is likely to stoke agitation back in Washington, where Democrats and Republicans have blasted Trump for not taking seriously the special counsel’s report into Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign to disrupt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
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Trump spoke to reporters briefly before he and Putin were scheduled to talk for an hour to discuss a series of national security issues, including Iran’s recent aggression, the civil war in Syria, where the United States and Russia are backing opposing sides, and a new arms control treaty with China.
When Trump did not bring up to reporters whether he would mention election interference, a reporter asked him if he would talk to Putin about it.
“Yes, of course I will,” Trump told reporters. Then he turned to Putin, smiling and wagging his finger in the Russian president’s direction at one point, and said: “Don’t meddle in the election…please. Don’t meddle in the election.”
But it’s unclear whether Trump will actually press Putin on Mueller’s findings. Before he left Washington, Trump declined to tell reporters at the White House what, if anything, he would say to Putin about election interference. Putin denies any Russian role in the election, and Trump has previously sparked controversy by appearing to accept the Russian president’s word on the issue.
“I’ll have a very good conversation with him,” Trump said earlier this week. “What I say to him is none of your business.”
A senior administration official described the meeting 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.
Earlier, when the world leaders posed for a photo, Trump walked and chatted with Putin, patting him gently on the back as the two parted ways onstage.
Trump’s approach to Putin on the subject has been under heavy scrutiny since a 2018 meeting between the two in Helsinki. At a news conference, Trump seemingly sided with Putin’s denials over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, which have blamed the Kremlin for orchestrating the systematic election meddling campaign. And just two weeks ago, Trump said in an interview that he might not report to the FBI any election help offered by a foreign source in the 2020 election cycle. He later tried to walk the statement back.
While in Japan, Trump is holding a series of bilateral meetings at the annual meeting of the world’s largest economies with autocratic leaders the president often praises for their strength and ability to act unilaterally. In addition to Putin, Trump will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Democrats and Republicans have blasted Trump for what appears to be a reluctance to criticize Putin, even as his administration has repeatedly hit Russia with sanctions over issues like election interference and criticized Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine.
But Trump himself has called Putin to congratulate him on an election that was marred with allegations of fraud, invited the Russian leader to the White House and suggested the Crimea region in Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014 should remain part of Russia.
Even as he left for the G-20 summit this week, Trump blasted host county Japan and India on trade but said nothing about Russia.
“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.”
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.”
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 have promised and leading to congressional investigations. But Friday’s meeting is expected to include members of both countries’ delegations.
“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.”
Trump canceled 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.