Trump, Putin joke about media, election meddling at G20

By David Nakamura, Seung Min Kim and Damian Paletta | Washington Post

OSAKA, Japan – President Donald Trump on Friday appeared to make light of Russian election interference, telling him President Vladimir Putin with a grin during a bilateral meeting, “Don’t meddle in the election,” after reporters shouted questions about the topic.

Trump met with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit here, but he did not initially raise the topic during brief remarks in front of reporters, calling their relationship “very, very good.” He said the two would discuss “trade, including some disarmament, some little protectionism perhaps – in a very positive way.”

“We look forward to spending some very good time together,” Trump said after the two sat down next to one another, flanked by their aides. “A lot of positive things are going to come out of the relationship.”

Putin noted that the two had not met since their first formal summit in Helsinki last summer and said the conversation in Osaka would be a “great opportunity to follow up on that.”

At that point, American reporters in the room began shouting questions about whether Trump would warn Putin not to meddle in future U.S. elections. “Yes, of course I will,” Trump replied. As reporters were being ushered out and still shouting more questions, a grinning Trump said: “Don’t meddle in the election.”

Raising his right index finger toward Putin, Trump repeated himself, while turning to watch the reporters depart.

When reporters first entered the room, Trump and Putin could been seen smiling as they discussed their mutual dislike of the news media, according to reporters in the room and a video posted by a service owned by RT, a Russian state TV network.

“Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it. You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,” Trump said, according to Reuters.

“We also have. It’s the same,” a smiling Putin responded in English. Under Putin’s government, press freedoms have been greatly curtailed.

Trump and Putin met for 90 minutes, mostly without any journalists present. Russian state media reported that Putin invited Trump to Moscow next year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and attend a lavish military parade. The Kremlin said Trump “responded very positively.”

Asked about the invitation, the White House said in an email: “The President believes it’s important to commemorate the Allied troops who lost their lives in WWII, as he said in June during the D-Day events in the UK and Normandy, but he has not confirmed participation.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that an official invitation for the Moscow parade would be sent to Trump “in the coming days.”

The meeting with Putin appeared likely to renew criticism in Washington that Trump has jeopardized national security by not accepting and, at times, seeking to undermine the ample evidence that Moscow conducted a serious effort to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and bolster Trump’s campaign.

Although then-special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was not sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the campaign, his 448-page report issued direct warnings over Russian interference. Mueller said Russia made “multiple, systemic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

But Trump has consistently cast doubt on the findings, calling the 22-month investigation a politically motivated “witch hunt” and “presidential harassment” aimed at destroying his presidency.

In a separate exchange, Trump said he and Putin had not yet discussed the event that prompted Trump to call off a scheduled meeting with him at last year’s G-20 gathering in Buenos Aires – Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval ships. Russia had fired on the Ukrainian vessels and captured about two dozen sailors, who remained jailed in Russia.

After the meeting, a White House readout distributed to reporters said the two leaders discussed Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, but it made no mention of election interference.

“Trump laughed off election interference and doesn’t bother to raise Putin’s belligerent, illegal behavior against Ukrainian sailors,” Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter. “Disappointing but no longer shocking. Trump consistently appeases Putin at expense of U.S. national security interests.”

Even before Trump sat down with Putin, his political rivals accused him of being unprepared to engage with foreign leaders.

In an interview on MSNBC shortly after the second round of the opening Democratic primary debate in Miami, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Trump does not consult with diplomats and military officials before conducting foreign affairs “in a way that’s about his personality and ego.”

She added: “I absolutely have concerns about this president meeting with anyone without an adequate kind of buffer and some guarantee that he is actually going to weigh whatever he receives in that conversation and whether it is in the best interest of national security and the best interest of the people of our country.”

Cybersecurity experts have raised questions over whether the Trump administration is taking adequate steps to combat efforts by Russia or other nations to interfere in the 2020 presidential campaign.

During his Helsinki summit with Putin, Trump appeared to side with the Russian leader over the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies over whether Moscow was responsible for efforts to interfere in the election, including the hacking of private emails and other materials from the Democratic National Committee, which were then leaked publicly.

“President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump said at a joint news conference after that summit. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Trump attempted a day later to clean up his remarks after engendering fierce criticism, including from some Republicans. He said he had misspoken and that he had full faith in the FBI.

En route to the G-20 summit on Wednesday, Trump said he was “off to save the free world,” but on Friday he appeared more interested in criticizing U.S. politicians back home than making headway on his foreign policy agenda.

As the summit got underway, the president’s attention was clearly divided as he took time between bilateral meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to watch a few minutes of the second night of the first Democratic primary debate on television at the conference center.

Then he fired off a tweet in a bid to inject himself into the fray by denouncing his rivals for saying that they would provide health care for undocumented immigrants.

“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited health care,” Trump wrote, even though the candidates had discussed their plans to expand health coverage for all Americans earlier in the debate. “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

Trump was responding to a moment during the first hour of the forum in Miami, when moderator Savannah Guthrie asked the 10 candidates to raise a hand if their government health-care plan would cover undocumented immigrants. All 10 raised their hands.

Trump also mentioned the exchanges, unprompted, during his meeting with Merkel.

“You know, they have a debate going on, they had the first debate last night,” hetold the chancellor, who remained stone-faced. “I don’t know if you saw it, it wasn’t very exciting, I can tell you that. They have another one today. They definitely have plenty of candidates, that’s about it. So I look forward to spending time with you rather than watching.”

It was not clear that such a sentiment was sincere. The president has been hyper focused on his domestic political rivals since leaving Washington late Wednesday, mocking the first night of the debate as “BORING!” and ridiculing a production miscue by NBC News, which broadcast the proceedings.

Following the second debate, Trump insulted two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates – former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“I am in Japan at the G-20, representing our Country well, but I heard it was not a good day for Sleepy Joe or Crazy Bernie,” he tweeted. “One is exhausted, the other is nuts – so what’s the big deal?”

By contrast, Trump did not offer much in the way of a proactive public agenda here on the first full day of the gathering of the world’s biggest economic powers. In remarks ahead of his meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Modi and Merkel, Trump praised his fellow leaders and said little when reporters asked whether he intended to follow through on tariff threats on Japan or about friction with Merkel.

Asked about his past criticism that Germany and other U.S. allies do not spend enough on defense, Trump replied: “The chancellor is a great friend of mine.”

By late morning, the president had plowed through his initial meetings and was preparing for a face-to-face discussion with Putin, a meeting that White House aides described as having no specific agenda.

The meeting between Trump and Putin came against the backdrop of fierce criticism aimed at the Russian leader from a top European official.

Trump has tried to forge a close relationship with Putin during his presidency, but this has been met with skepticism by others who have questioned Putin’s motives.

Putin told the Financial Times in an interview this week that liberalism had “become obsolete” and “has outlived its purpose.”

Those comments were viewed as an attack on governments that elect their leaders democratically. Numerous investigations have found that Putin’s government interfered in the 2016 campaign in an attempt to tip the scales toward Trump, and other world leaders have warned that Russia continues to try to interfere in the democratic process.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office released a statement after her meeting with Putin, taking him to task for what it described as Russia’s efforts to destablize democracies.

“She told the President that there cannot be a normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia stops the irresponsible and destabilizing activity that threatens the UK and its allies – including hostile interventions in other countries, disinformation and cyber attacks – which undermine Russia’s standing in the world,” the statement said.

Yet even as other leaders attempted to put pressure on Putin, Trump was focused on his rivals back home. In a meeting with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump was talking about the situation in Venezuela, where socialist leader Nicolás Maduro has retained power in the face of widespread opposition.

“There’s a rumor the Democrats are changing the name of the party from the Democrat Party to the Socialist Party,” Trump said facetiously. “I’m hearing that.”

His senior aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, sitting across from their Brazilian counterparts, chuckled heartily.

The Washington Post’s Amie Ferris-Rotman contributed to this story.