On Friday, President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov. The meeting, which was supposed to last just 35 minutes, instead lasted some two hours. The men obviously had good chemistry; Putin joked about the media as he sat beside Trump afterward.
But two different narratives have emerged in the wake of the meeting.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump pushed the Russians on election interference, as well as aggression in Ukraine and Syria; Putin denied election interference. According to Tillerson, “The two leaders agreed this is of substantial hindrance. They agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the U.S. and our democratic process as well as other countries.” Tillerson said that the United States and Russia would work together to counter “cyberthreats” and that they had overlapping goals with respect to ISIS. Tillerson even stated, “on some issues maybe they have the right approach and we have the wrong approach.”
Meanwhile, the Russians claimed that Trump had caved to Putin almost immediately on the election interference issue. Lavrov stated that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial regarding election interference. Lavrov explained, “President Trump, I’m sure either he himself or Rex Tillerson will talk about this, said that this campaign [regarding Russian interference] is already acquiring quite a strange character because for months when accusations have been voiced not a single fact has come out.” Anonymous U.S. officials denied Lavrov’s account.
So, who is lying?
It would be easy and comforting to say that the Russians are lying — that Trump told Putin that our intelligence community has come to a general assessment about Russian election interference. It would be perfectly plausible for Lavrov to lie about the meeting in order to sow more seeds of doubt about Trump among members of the American public.
But Trump hasn’t been willing to make such unqualified statements publicly, never mind privately. Furthermore, Trump hurt his own credibility regarding recaps of Russian meetings when the White House denied allegations that Trump shared sensitive information with Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the day after firing FBI director James Comey. That denial turned out not to be true.
In the end, policy matters more than what Trump thinks of Putin or vice versa. And so we’ll have to see whether Trump truly wants to cooperate with Putin on cybersecurity, or whether that’s just talk while Trump takes a stronger stance against Russian interference; whether Trump will stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine; whether Trump will take a stronger stance against Russian interference in Syria.