Hillary Clinton once needled Donald Trump by calling him Vladimir Putin's "puppet" during a presidential debate. Mr. Trump visibly bristled. "No puppet," he responded, scowling and shaking his head.
During his first in-person meeting with the Russian President on Friday, Mr. Trump had a chance to prove his assertion – and to show exactly what his relationship with Mr. Putin may look like.
In a highly anticipated encounter in Germany that lasted more than two hours, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin laid the groundwork for a relationship whose course will be crucial to ongoing conflicts in world affairs.
For Mr. Trump, the meeting during the Group of 20 summit involved walking a fine line. The U.S. President has expressed a steadfast desire to improve relations with Russia, repeating his belief that the two countries should co-operate to tackle a host of challenges, including fighting the Islamic State.
But there was also pressure on Mr. Trump from U.S. voters and lawmakers to show he was no push over – no "puppet." Most notably, Mr. Trump needed to address the thorniest topic in the bilateral relationship from the American perspective: the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the presidential election and will likely do so again.
Mr. Trump's task was complicated by the fact that a welter of investigations are under way into whether his campaign advisers colluded with the Russian effort.
Mr. Trump broached the topic of Russian meddling early in the meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – one of only six people present for the talks – told reporters that Mr. Trump opened the encounter by "raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election."
Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin had a "very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject," Mr. Tillerson continued. He said that the U.S. President pressed his Russian counterpart on the topic more than once. Mr. Putin denied any involvement in efforts to influence the election, Mr. Tillerson said, and asked for evidence of Russia's role.
Mr. Tillerson said that Mr. Trump used the meeting to talk about the future rather than concentrate on an area of obvious dispute. The two presidents focused on "how do we move forward from what may simply be an intractable disagreement at this point," Mr. Tillerson said.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, who was also present at the meeting, provided a somewhat differing account to reporters. Mr. Lavrov described Mr. Trump as saying that "some circles" in the United States are "exaggerating the topic of Russian cybermeddling" and that Mr. Trump "accepts" Mr. Putin's statements that Russia did not interfere.
"No one disputes that the issue came up," noted Derek Chollet, a former Defence Department official and a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "The question is, who talked the most and who said what? I'm pretty confident that Putin monopolized that part of the conversation with a well-rehearsed monologue about how this whole issue is overblown."
Mr. Trump himself has played down the intelligence community's assessment of Russian interference in the election. On Thursday, he once again declined to make an unequivocal statement about Russian meddling. "I think it was Russia and I think it could have been other people in other countries," Mr. Trump said during a news conference in Poland. "Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure."
During the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, the two leaders also discussed a range of other topics, including North Korea and areas of potential co-operation in Syria. On Friday, Russia, the United States and Jordan announced an agreement to de-escalate hostilities in an area of southwest Syria, starting with a ceasefire that will take effect Sunday. "This is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria," Mr. Tillerson said.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin crossed paths earlier in the day. At a working lunch for the assembled G20 leaders, Mr. Trump greeted Mr. Putin amiably, pairing a handshake with a pat on the elbow and later, a friendly slap on the back.
In their face-to-face meeting, the two leaders "connected very quickly" and had "very clear positive chemistry," Mr. Tillerson said. As the meeting continued past its allotted time, Melania Trump, the first lady, came in to try to get things back on schedule. "We went another hour after she came in to see us," Mr. Tillerson told reporters.
Mr. Chollet noted that with prior U.S. presidents, Mr. Putin's opening move has been co-operative rather than confrontational. That position, however, does not last. "The problem that other U.S. presidents run into is that Putin makes it hard to have a good relationship," he said.