Network Take: No Surprises from the Trump and Putin Meeting

photo: Getty Images/Steffen Kugler

President Donald Trump immediately brought up the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election during his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, according to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, along with translators, were the only others in the room for the meeting on Friday. The discussion took far longer than the planned half hour, lasting two hours and 15 minutes.

Although Trump pressed Putin on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, Putin denied interfering and asked for evidence. Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Tillerson said the two countries should “move forward” from the “intractable” disagreement on this issue, while Lavrov claimed that Trump “accepts these statements” that Russia did not interfere.

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia was behind hacking and leaking information to influence the election to the benefit of the Trump campaign.

Trump and Putin also discussed Syria at length, agreeing to a limited ceasefire beginning on Sunday, along with Ukraine and North Korea.

The Cipher Brief asked some of its network what this all means. 

The Cipher Brief: Are you surprised the meeting went so long? Afterwards, Tillerson said there was a “clear positive chemistry between the two,” and that the meeting went so long because “neither one of them wanted to stop.” What does that tell you about their relationship despite all of the controversy? Does that suggest anything in particular in terms of the substance discussed?

General Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA Director: First of all, we really don’t know a whole lot about what happened at the meeting. What I have been able to see is Secretary Tillerson’s readout to the press. Based on that caveat, a couple of quick observations: The length of the meeting is probably not surprising. If there had been some sort of a blowup, it would’ve gone shorter, but I really didn’t expect that, and the personal chemistry thing is also not surprising. It was probably in both presidents’ interest to establish some sort of dialogue, and frankly, President Trump does seem to be more comfortable with autocrats than democrats.  

John McLaughlin, former Acting and Deputy CIA Director: I’m not at all surprised the meeting went so long. I’ve been convinced that whatever the policy differences are and the levels of political experience between these two individuals, that they would have generally personal chemistry. When I was in Russia shortly before our election and speaking with a number of individuals who work closely with Putin, they described him in terms that sounded very much like Trump on a personal level. “Putin is a transactional individual – that is someone who says ‘if you do this, I will do that.’ Putin is also someone who craves respect above all else and is easily offended when it is not fully given.” So on a human level, these two should understand each other pretty well, even though Putin is vastly more experienced in policy and government, having governed Russia in one or another now for 18 years.

John Sipher, former member of the CIA Senior Intelligence Service: I am not surprised that the meeting went longer than planned. President Putin was certainly well prepared and had a long list of grievances and proposals. He also had unusual insight into President Trump – what buttons to push, what issues will get him engaged, etc. I suspect that the longer the meeting, the more it will benefit Putin and the Russian side. He has a lot more to gain from the U.S. than visa versa. He is much more practiced at making his points. He knows exactly what he wants. The U.S. side has never made it clear what it wants from the meeting, and therefore was in a weaker position. 

Michael Sulick, former Director of the CIA National Clandestine Service: Not surprised at all. Considering the complex issues involved in the relationship, a 30-minute meeting would have shown neither side was serious. Besides, Putin needs to cultivate Trump. He’s consistently portrayed as the great “mastermind.” At this point, he has masterminded bogging Russia down in two costly quagmires, Syria and the Ukraine, achieving an economic growth rate below that of Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation,” sparking anti-corruption protests in 145 Russian cities and spearheading a cyber operation that has ruined any chance of sanctions relief in the near term. He truly needs a friend. As often happens in these sessions, it seems like the participants were at two separate meetings.

TCB: Secretary of State Tillerson indicated Trump repeatedly brought up with Putin the issue of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, saying they had “a very robust and lengthy exchange on the topic.” Putin denied Russian involvement. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who was described as being particularly irritable during his news conference, said Trump accepted Putin’s denials. Does that indicate the Russians believe they have convinced Trump and can move on, or is it just gamesmanship?

Hayden: It was inevitable that President Trump would bring up the election interference issue. He really couldn’t avoid that. But I was struck by Secretary Tillerson’s choice of words that the president brought up “the concerns of the American people” with the Russian interference, not President Trump’s concerns.

McLaughlin: We need to know more before confidently judging how this all went. On the basis of what has been described so far, it looks like Trump did at least some of what he had to do in this meeting on the election issue. If he repeatedly raised it as Tillerson says, we need to give him credit for doing so. The Russians of course will deny it, and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has already said that Trump accepted Putin’s denial (no surprise and possibly a sign that the two sides heard it differently, a common occurrence in such meetings.) I have been in the position many times of transmitting unassailable U.S. conclusions to Russian officials only to have them deny it and ask for specific evidence, by which they mean sources and methods for the intelligence, which we can never give them.

Sipher: I get so frustrated with the use of the word “meddling.” A more accurate word is “attack.” The Russians are looking to inflict significant damage on our system and on our allies. It is not something that can be “accepted” by the U.S. or reasonably denied by the Russians. I want to know what it means to “move on.” In my opinion, we lose if we accept and move on from a blatant attack on the United States.

Sulick: Lavrov claims Trump accepted Putin’s denials – the U.S. side disagrees. This is for domestic consumption in Russia, Putin once again the strongman, forcefully arguing with the leader of the “main adversary.” 

TCB: Tillerson said Trump “is rightly focused” on how to “move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point.”  Can the U.S. simply set this dispute aside and move forward with the relationship? 

Hayden: No surprises with the Putin denial, but I was a little disappointed that Secretary Tillerson said they didn’t spend a lot of time re-litigating the past and the focus was on moving forward. My read on that is that President Trump is done complaining to the Russians about their electoral interference, and he certainly isn’t about to punish them any further for it. 

McLaughlin: No, and a careful reading of the White House transcript indicates that Tillerson said we would be returning to this issue and continue working it. We can’t set it aside, but it’s unrealistic to imagine that it could have been settled in this one meeting, so we will have to keep hammering on it.

Sipher: No.

TCB: Apparently there was agreement to set up a working group to establish a framework on cyber crime and non-interference in elections. Is that enough?

Hayden: The agreement for further work on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs is pretty much fluff.

McLaughlin: I would call it a start, which is probably not a bad characterization for the entire meeting. Cyber is one of the most complex issues facing us, and there was so little precedent compared to an old diplomatic field like arms control, that this will take time, focus, and truly heroic diplomacy.

Sipher: No. It is analogous to establishing a working group on home break-ins with someone who just robbed your home. The Russians see us as the enemy and show every indication that they want to harm us. If your dog bites you, you do not reward the dog with a treat. This lets the Russians off way too easily. They are surely laughing at us. 

TCB: We’re told the two leaders did discuss other issues, including Ukraine, North Korea, and reaching an agreement for a ceasefire in Syria. Do you think the Trump Administration will now work more aggressively with Russia on issues of mutual concern?

Hayden: We need to learn a little bit more about the de-escalation zone in Syria. What are its geographic parameters? Is it a narrowly defined ceasefire or is it conceding a significant Russian role in Syria and an expansion of Syrian government control over territory there?

McLaughlin: No, what’s required now is continuous engagement. I believe this worked most effectively in the Clinton administration, when high-level delegations from both administrations met repeatedly about every six weeks to put issues on the table. There was seldom complete agreement, but the two sides could understand where each was coming from, and you could hope for incremental progress, which sometimes occurred.

Sipher: Yes, I support all efforts to engage the Russians on areas of mutual concern. We should do so with our eyes open, however. The Russians have already voted against us on North Korea’s latest test, and are working with our enemies in Syria.