What really happened during those two hours and 16 minutes?
We may never fully know. The precise contents of Friday's sit-down between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were very deliberately kept off the record, its attendance limited, at the last minute, to only six people – the two presidents themselves, their foreign ministers and two translators.
We have good reason to obsess over it. The Hamburg meeting was by all accounts a very friendly first encounter between a U.S. President out of step with the democratic world and the Russian President who may have engineered his election victory. Both presidents are now proclaiming the meeting as a moment of reconciliation and co-operation.
"The two leaders connected very quickly," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of the six attendees, said immediately afterward. "There was a very clear positive chemistry." Both presidents echoed this summary in their tweets and statements. At a moment when Russia faces deep and unanswered condemnation for its invasion of Ukraine, its alleged interference in the U.S. election, its destructive role in Syria and its attacks on minorities, opposition figures and the democratic order, this message is disturbing enough. But both leaders appear poised to carry it further.
We do know a few things about what happened during those 136 minutes. What we have been told by Mr. Tillerson and by his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, is on the whole stunningly anodyne and insignificant: Another limited ceasefire in Syria, a channel of communication around Ukraine, some appointments – all of them very low-grade, fully prearranged gestures. This is not the stuff of a two-hour conversation (even accounting for the cumbersome two-way translation – neither president speaks the other's language – that still amounts to an hour of talking).
Oh, and the small matter of Russian interference in the U.S. election. The fact that Mr. Putin may have sponsored the leak of documents that swung the 2016 election – a point of consensus among the top U.S. intelligence agencies – and therefore was nearly single-handedly responsible for Mr. Trump's election victory, was the looming backdrop to this meeting, the source of its tension.
Both leaders acknowledged that the topic came up, that Mr. Putin had reassured Mr. Trump that nothing untoward had taken place in 2016 and that Mr. Trump had accepted that reassurance (their positions only diverge over whether Mr. Trump "repeatedly pressed" his Russian counterpart over the interference, as Mr. Tillerson said, or whether, as Mr. Lavrov said, he dropped the subject as soon as Mr. Putin reassured him).
Mr. Trump took this further after returning to the White House Sunday, declaring on Twitter that, "Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!" and that "Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit [together] so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded."
This shocking declaration provoked a torrent of fox-hen house analogies; even Marco Rubio, the right-leaning Florida Republican senator, declared that the President's proposal is akin to "partnering with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad on a 'Chemical Weapons Unit.'"
Mr. Trump then chastised former president Barack Obama on Twitter for having failed to stop Russian interference in the election, suggesting that he does acknowledge the existence of such acts.
Still, aside from being told repeatedly that it was friendly, we know little else about what took place in that meeting.
Yet by scouring the record for details, we are missing the larger implication of their meeting. It was, in its substance, in its symbolism and in the overall message it gave, a large-canvas validation of a vision of politics the two men share. It was Mr. Trump's most public endorsement of Putinism, and Mr. Putin's display, to his citizens, of his mastery and authorship of the Trump phenomenon.
It followed Mr. Trump's refusal to co-operate with the West's democratic leaders on multiple initiatives, and his Warsaw speech, in which he, to use the words of author Anne Applebaum, "confirmed Poland's nationalist government in its isolationist and anti-democratic course."
In that speech, he shocked European observers by using the language of extreme-right and white-supremacist movements to make the case for ethnic exclusion and isolationism. "The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive," he declared in Warsaw – and then in Hamburg, a day later, he spent 136 minutes with the world's premier anti-Western leader and provided his own version of an answer.