HAMBURG, Germany — President Donald Trump, a man who ran for president pledging to buck US foreign relations conventions and put “America First,” will come face-to-face with those promises on Friday here at the G20 summit as he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time.
Trump’s meeting with Putin, a pivotal encounter that will likely color the tone and tenor of US relations with Russia for years, sits atop Trump’s schedule of critical meetings on Friday.
The White House is aware of the stakes. Top aides have worked for weeks to prepare for this encounter with Putin, known for his craft on the international stage, and experts have suggested the White House be prepared for a curveball from the Russian president.
Trump took to Twitter from Germany to look forward to his Putin meeting.
“I look forward to all meetings today with world leaders, including my meeting with Vladimir Putin,” Trump said. “Much to discuss.”
Trump and Putin, before their official meeting at the G20, briefly met and shook hands, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Friday. Russian state-run media reported that the two were seated at the same table in the Hamburg Messe, the site of the summit.
The brief encounter brought Trump face-to-face with the leader of the country that United States intelligence says meddled in the 2016 election in an effort to get Trump elected.
Any Trump-Putin meeting — whether official or unofficial — will likely be tense as both have pestered each other in the lead-up to the G20. Trump chided Russia’s use of energy as a coercive force and for its actions in Eastern Ukraine on Thursday in Poland, while Putin subtly jabbed Trump’s trade policies on the sidelines of the summit, according to the Russian state-run media.
“When discussing the situation in the global economy, the Russian side intends to focus on issues regarding ensuring positive dynamics of global trade,” Putin said. “We oppose the growing policy of protectionism in the world.”
Trump has championed more protectionist policies as President.
Trump’s meeting with Putin is surely critical. But Friday schedule is stacked with possibly tense conversations for Trump, including a prolonged sit-down with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Trump sat between British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela during Friday morning’s leader retreat and was seen chatting with the British Prime Minister. Putin was seated next to Pena Nieto. Trump, who flew to Germany from Poland on Thursday afternoon, met with Merkel upon landing and had dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Because much of the G20 happens out of sight from the media, optics will likely dictate how Trump’s meetings with world leaders — particularly with Putin — will be viewed.
Trump, a businessman-turned-politician who prided himself on the campaign trail of being a political novice, has grown more aware of how optics play a critical role in foreign relations since his first forays on the international stage. During Merkel’s meeting at the White House in March, Trump failed to shake the German leader’s hand during their meeting in the Oval Office. The move cemented the global view that their relationship was icy — a view that persists today.
Focus on Syria and Ukraine
Trump, administration officials tell CNN, plans to focus primarily on disputes in Syria and Ukraine when he meets with Putin on Friday. While a formal plan for the meeting has yet to emerge, there is little expectation on the American side that Trump will bring up Russia’s 2016 election activities.
The President said Thursday that Russia could have been behind efforts to influence the election but suggested the finger can be pointed elsewhere as well and that “nobody really knows for sure.”
“I think it very well could be Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries,” Trump said during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Russia has denied any involvement.
US intelligence agencies concluded in a report released earlier this year that Russia ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election.
Trump, though, needled Putin in Poland, giving a well-received speech that strongly backed Article 5, the principle that dictates an attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of NATO.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the Russian president took Trump’s comments from Poland “into consideration” as he prepared for conversation.