President Trump issued a warning of sorts to Russian President Vladimir Putin not to interfere in the 2020 election when the two met here Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 conference.
But the admonition appeared less a stern rebuke than a sarcastic joke between friends, one that provoked broad grins and chortles in the room.
After a reporter asked Trump at the start of their meeting if he would tell the Russian autocrat not to meddle in the U.S. campaign, Trump used the assembled TV cameras to leave no doubt that he had followed through.
“Yes, of course I will,” Trump responded before turning toward Putin.
“Don’t meddle in the election, please,” Trump said, smiling and briefly pointing his right index finger toward Putin. “Don’t meddle in the election.”
Putin did not respond verbally, but he appeared to laugh at the lighthearted reprimand. So did Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and several others in the room.
Trump’s playful demeanor with Putin — he also winked at him — suggested he was joking. Critics were quick to jump on the mirthful exchange as minimizing the risk of foreign interference in a U.S. political campaign.
“Russia’s proven and blatant interference in our elections in 2016 is no laughing matter,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama. “Yet again, President Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t take the security of our elections seriously.”
Over the last two years, Trump has repeatedly scoffed at the determination, first by U.S. intelligence agencies and then by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, that a Kremlin-backed operation hacked and released Democratic Party emails and manipulated social media in an effort to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
A summit between the two leaders in Helsinki, Finland, last July was marred when Trump openly accepted Putin’s denial of having meddled in the 2016 election, and dismissed U.S. intelligence conclusions to the contrary. After a public outcry, Trump retreated and said he had misspoken.
None of Trump’s nine bilateral meetings over two days on the sidelines of the G-20 conference were more eagerly anticipated or laden with subtext than his sit-down with Putin. It was their first meeting since the Justice Department released Mueller’s redacted report in mid-April.
During his investigation, Mueller’s team indicted 25 Russians, including a dozen military intelligence officers, for allegedly violating U.S. laws during the 2016 election campaign. Nine other individuals, including several of Trump’s top former aides, were also charged, although none for assisting the Russian operation.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed Mueller’s findings, calling his investigation a “witch hunt” and railing against Democrats who have called Mueller to testify before Congress next month and are openly considering impeachment proceedings.
In an interview Friday with the Financial Times before he left Moscow, Putin mischaracterized the Mueller report, which said that Russian government interference in the 2016 election was “sweeping and systematic.”
“Russia has been accused, and, strange as it may seem, it is still being accused, despite the Mueller report, of mythical interference in the U.S. election,” Putin said. “What happened in reality? Mr. Trump looked into his opponents’ attitude to him and saw changes in American society, and he took advantage of this.”
Putin has also complained that the U.S. political climate has prevented the two nations from working together more closely.
Trump bonded with Putin on Friday over a shared scorn for journalists.
“Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn't it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” the president said, according to a tweet by Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs.
“We also have,” Putin answered, in English. “It’s the same.”
They shared a chuckle.
Dozens of Russian journalists have been murdered since 2000, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Unlike with the Helsinki summit, where Trump and Putin met alone for more than two hours with only interpreters present, several aides to both leaders joined them for Friday’s meeting.
A White House statement released afterward said that the two leaders “agreed that improved relations between the United States and Russia [were] in each countries’ mutual interest and the interest of the world” and listed several topics that were discussed.
Election interference was not included.
Trump and Putin were scheduled to talk at the G-20 in Buenos Aires in December, but Trump canceled the meeting after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships and imprisoned 23 Ukrainian sailors, who all remain in Russian custody.
Trump told reporters Friday that he and Putin would discuss “trade, some disarmament” and “protectionism.”
“A lot of very positive things are going to come out of the relationship,” Trump said.
Following the meeting, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that Putin invited Trump to visit Moscow next summer to join in ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the allies' World War II victory. Peskov said that Trump, while he didn't accept, reacted "positively" to the idea.
Trump, who is best known on the world stage for taunts and insults, has sought to infuse some levity into this confab of leaders representing the world’s largest economies at a time of trade wars, rising tensions with Iran and other challenges.
He tweeted Wednesday as he headed to Osaka that he was “off to save the free world.”
On Friday, speaking to reporters at the outset of his meeting with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump weighed in on the two nights of debates by Democratic presidential candidates in Miami.
“I heard a rumor that the Democrats are going to change their name from the Democratic Party to the socialist party,” Trump said, eliciting laughs from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials seated nearby.