What happened in the time alone with Putin?
The dinner conversation with Putin was first reported Monday by Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group, in a newsletter to group clients. Bremmer said the meeting began “halfway” into the meal and lasted “roughly an hour.” The senior administration official said it began with the dessert course, but did not comment on its length.
Pool reporters covering Trump noted that his and Putin’s motorcades were among the last to leave the event, departing within minutes of each other just before midnight.
Trump lashed out at the media for reporting on his undisclosed meeting with Putin, saying the “fake news” was “sick” and “dishonest.”
But the president distorted what news outlets, including The Washington Post, had reported, saying the story was about a “secret dinner” when in fact it was reported as an undisclosed meeting with Putin at a dinner of the G-20 leaders and their spouses. Trump also incorrectly stated that journalists knew about his meeting with Putin; in fact, they did not until Tuesday, when the White House confirmed that the two presidents met during the dinner.
In the first of two tweets, Trump wrote: “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!”
Trump then tweeted, “The Fake News is becoming more and more dishonest! Even a dinner arranged for top 20 leaders in Germany is made to look sinister!”
The dinner encounter appeared to underscore the extent to which Trump was eager throughout the summit to cultivate a friendship with Putin. During last year’s election campaign, he spoke admiringly of the Russian leader and at times seemed captivated by him.
Meeting each other face-to-face for the first time at the Hamburg summit, the two presidents seemed to have a chemistry in their more formal bilateral session, evidenced by the fact that, despite being scheduled for 35 minutes, it continued for more than two hours.
But Trump’s newly revealed conversation with Putin at the G-20 dinner is likely to stoke criticism — including perhaps from some fellow Republicans in Congress — that he is too cozy with the leader of a major U.S. adversary.
Putin’s official interpreter provided the only Russian-English interpretation, the White House statement said, because the president was seated next to the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “Each couple was allowed one translator,” it said. “The American translator accompanying President Trump spoke Japanese.”
The only version of the conversation provided to White House aides was that given by Trump himself, said the administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the White House statement was issued. Reporters traveling with the White House were not informed during the trip, and there was no formal readout of the chat.
The official Trump-Putin meeting, earlier in the day, led to confusion over whether Trump agreed, as Putin later implied, to accept the Kremlin’s denial of any wrongdoing regarding interference in last year’s election.
That meeting was attended by the leaders and their two interpreters, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Tillerson later said Trump twice asked Putin if the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had meddled in the race were true, and Putin twice denied it, so they moved on to other subjects of importance to the bilateral relationship, including Syria.
In Trump’s own account of the formal meeting, he repeated earlier comments that another country might have been responsible for cyber-interference in the election. “I’m not saying it wasn’t Russia. What I’m saying is that we have to protect ourselves no matter who it is,” he told reporters on Air Force One as he returned from a visit to France last week.
“You know, China is very good at this,” Trump said. “I hate to say it, North Korea is very good at this.”
Trump also said that Putin was unlikely to have preferred him over Hillary Clinton as president, since his goals include taking international energy business away from Russia and building up the U.S. military.
The dinner at the G-20 summit, held July 7-8, occurred hours after Trump and Putin’s lengthy formal meeting. Leaders and their spouses were invited to a musical performance at Hamburg’s riverside concert venue, followed by an intimate dinner at which they were seated next to the spouse of one of their counterparts, rather than their own. Melania Trump was seated next to Putin.
Trump, who is among the newest world leaders in the G-20, remained at the dinner for the entire night. He was among the last to leave — after the host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had already departed. Pool reporters with the president saw Putin’s motorcade leave at 11:50 p.m., followed shortly by Trump, who departed the concert hall at 11:54 p.m.
Leaders who witnessed the meeting were “bemused, nonplussed, befuddled” by the animated conversation, held in full view — but apparently not within listening distance — of others present, Bremmer said by telephone. He said he spoke with two participants at the dinner.
One senior European official whose head of government was there played down the attention the Trump-Putin chat garnered, saying it was not unusual for leaders to circulate or “withdraw to a corner” at such private gatherings.
“Part of the rationale is the flurry of bilateral contacts that happen,” the official said. “I don’t find it a sensation,” he said of the lengthy dinner chat, although “maybe Trump and Putin are a little different” from other attendees.
The administration official said there was nothing unusual in a meeting with no aides present, noting that Trump met alone with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and held a one-on-one session, with no aides present, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House.
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.