President Trump opened his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday by raising U.S. concerns about Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. During the meeting, Putin denied being involved. Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Trump accepted Putin's assurances that Russia didn't meddle in the U.S. election. The two leaders also agreed to set up a joint group to address cybersecurity.
Trump's decision to confront Putin directly over election interference fulfilled ardent demands by U.S. lawmakers of both parties that the president not shy away from the issue in his highly anticipated meeting with Putin. The president has avoided stating unequivocally in the past that Russia interfered, even as investigations proceed into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russian officials who sought to help him win.
"I think the president is rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point," Tillerson said.
Putin's denial of culpability notwithstanding, he and Trump agreed that the issue has become a hindrance to better relations between the two powers, said Tillerson, who attended the more-than-two-hour meeting along with Russia's foreign minister. The secretary of state added that the discussion about the election meddling was "robust and lengthy."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Tillerson said the two leaders had agreed to continue the discussion, with an eye toward securing a commitment that Russia won't interfere in U.S. affairs in the future.
In their meeting, the leaders also discussed a ceasefire deal for southwestern Syria that was reached by Russia and the United States and first reported Friday by The Associated Press. Though the U.S. and Russia have held conflicting views on Syria in the past, Tillerson said Russia had an interest in seeing the Mideast nation become a stable place.
Both sides took pains to describe the meeting as "constructive," cordial, and wide-ranging, covering key topics including cyber security and North Korea. Still, Tillerson said no next meeting for Putin and Trump had been scheduled.
"The two leaders connected very quickly. There was a very clear positive chemistry," said Tillerson. The former Exxon Mobil CEO has done business in Russia and is one of the only senior members of Trump's administration who has prior experience dealing with Putin.
The meeting, originally scheduled for 35 minutes, clocked in at 2 hours and 16 minutes.
"There was so much to talk about," said Tillerson. "Neither one of them wanted to stop."
He added that at one point, aides sent in first lady Melania Trump to try to wrap up the talks, but the meeting went on another hour after that, "so clearly she failed."