President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had “positive chemistry” and “connected very quickly” in their first-ever face-to-face meeting in Germany on Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, The Hill reports.
The meeting was scheduled to last for 30 minutes but went on for more than two hours, Tillerson said, because “there was just such a level of engagement and exchange that neither one of them wanted to stop”. Tillerson described how first lady Melania Trump stuck her head in the door “to see if she could get us out of there.”
“That didn’t work either,” Tillerson said, laughing. During the meeting, Trump confronted Putin about Russian meddling in the United States 2016 presidential election, something he has been under intense pressure to do.
Trump broached that topic first, according to Tillerson, and repeatedly pressed Putin on the matter, even as the Russian president denied involvement. The leaders agreed on a bilateral framework to address Russian cyberattacks going forward. But if the talk started on a confrontational note, it appears the atmosphere quickly turned more cordial.
Tillerson’s descriptions of the meeting were in line with photos, which showed Trump and Putin smiling, leaning forward in their chairs and at ease ahead of the high-stakes encounter. The meeting could be the start of warming ties between the U.S. and Russia under Trump, turning the page on the tensions that defined the relationship under former President Barack Obama.
Tillerson signaled that the Trump administration is ready to put the past behind it as it seeks new ways to engage with Russia.
“There was not a lot of re-litigating the past. I think both of the leaders feel like there’s a lot of things in the past that both of us are unhappy about. We’re unhappy. They’re unhappy. I think the perspective of both of them was, this is a really important relationship. … How do we start making this work? How do we live with one another? How do we work with one another?” he said.
“We simply have to find a way to go forward, and I think that was expressed over and over, multiple times, I think by both presidents,” Tillerson added.
Trump and Putin came to one agreement on Friday. The U.S. and Russia, which have been supporting opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, agreed on Friday to a cease-fire in the southwest corner of the country, news of which emerged as the meeting was still underway.
Briefing reporters afterwards, Tillerson said the U.S. objectives in Syria “are exactly the same” as Russia’s. He indicated that there might be further opportunities for cooperation.
“There’s a lot more commonality to that than there are differences, so we want to build on the commonality and we spent a lot of time talking about next steps. And then where there’s differences, we have more work to get together and understand. Maybe they’ve got the right approach and we’ve got the wrong approach,” he added.
Still, Tillerson said Trump communicated to Putin that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is being propped up by Russia, must go for there to be stability and peace in Syria. And further international disagreements linger in Ukraine, where the U.S. is seeking to implement the 2015 Minsk agreement to halt fighting in the Eastern region.
Ukraine’s government has accused Moscow of supporting pro-Russian separatists there, an allegation the Kremlin has denied. Furthermore, while Trump broached the issue of campaign meddling, he will be under intense pressure when he returns home to ensure the integrity of U.S. elections and to punish Russia for any violations.
Putin refused to acknowledge wrongdoing, something that Tillerson acknowledged would continue to hang over U.S.-Russia relations.
“It’s too important to not find a way to move forward. I’m not dismissing the election meddling issue in any way, and that is why we’ve agreed to continue engagement and discussion around how we secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention of and will not interfere in our affairs in the future,” he added.
Obama after the election punished Russia for its meddling by imposing economic sanctions on the country and seizing two Russian compounds in the U.S. that intelligence officials say were used for spying. Obama also expelled 35 Russian diplomats.
Russia has pressed for the compounds to be returned, but it is unclear whether Trump and Putin discussed the matter on Friday.