White House Didn't Previously Disclose Trump Meeting With Putin

Jul 19, 2017
Originally published on July 19, 2017 6:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's be clear. With any other president - in fact, with any other two presidents - with a bit more disclosure, different details, this story might not be such a big deal. But it is this president. It is those presidents. And it was those details. At the Group of 20 summit in Germany, President Trump had an undisclosed conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign leaders meet and talk, of course. But unlike his other publicly-known meeting with Putin, Trump had no other Americans listening in.

At the dinner, the President sat with Putin and his Russian interpreter. People at the summit described this conversation to political analyst Ian Bremmer, who says other world leaders could not hear the talk but could see it. Bremmer spoke with NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

IAN BREMMER: It was very warm and friendly. And also, it lasted roughly an hour. That's a substantial meeting, and especially on the back of the over two-hour formal meeting they had before. And the only person that knows what was discussed is the translator.

INSKEEP: Now, the White House confirmed the fact of the conversation and described it as brief. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is here to talk with us about it. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is going to be our breakfast conversation here.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: And nobody's listening in except for everybody. What makes this seem like more than a chat between a couple of presidents?

HORSLEY: Well, of course there's all the convoluted history between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and Russia, and also that we're getting these very conflicting accounts here. This was a dinner that took place in a concert hall on the banks of the Elbe River there in Hamburg, during the G-20. I happened to be in the press pool that night. But we were kept in a van outside the meeting hall. The only people who were there were the G-20 leaders, their spouses and the translators. So we're forced to rely on second and third-hand accounts, and those are very different.

Ian Bremmer tells a story of Trump getting up in the middle of the dinner, approaching Vladimir Putin and then talking for more than an hour through - or for about an hour - through the Russian translator. The White House says, on the contrary, it was at the end of the dinner; Trump got up to reunite with his wife, Melania Trump, who happened to be sitting next to Putin, and they only spoke very briefly.

INSKEEP: OK, so there's some dispute about the details but no dispute about the meeting. And I'm thinking if you basically trust Donald Trump, if you basically trust the president of the United States, it seems fine. But if you don't, it becomes a very different circumstance because unlike a phone call with world leaders, where somebody else might be listening in, unlike his meeting with Vladimir Putin elsewhere at the summit, where Rex Tillerson is there in the room, there's no other American to account for what the president might have said, what Vladimir Putin might have said, what they might have agreed on, or disagreed on or anything.

HORSLEY: And we have Donald Trump tweeting that the fake news media is trying to make something sinister out of a typical G-20 social dinner. But that other meeting earlier in the day, even that was a fairly intimate gathering. Ordinarily, a president might bring a number of Cabinet secretaries and other advisers along with him. That was also just Rex Tillerson, Vladimir Putin and Tillerson's counterpart, the Russian foreign minister - a very small meeting, not a lot of witnesses. And again, we had somewhat conflicting accounts of how that meeting went.

What we do know is it was budgeted for 30 minutes, and it ran over two hours. It's the meeting where Trump says he confronted Vladimir Putin - asked him, did Russia meddle in the U.S. election - that Putin denied such meddling, and that they then moved on to talk about other items like Syria and Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Scott, Ian Bremmer, the guy who disclosed this meeting that the White House did not disclose - the hour-long meeting, he says - suggests that the chumminess of Trump and Putin made the other world leaders uncomfortable. Did you see any signs of that, any traces of that, as you were covering the G-20?

HORSLEY: You know, I wish I could say I had been a fly on the wall during the meeting. But I was a fly many walls away. Rex Tillerson's account, though, was that during this first face-to-face encounter, Trump and Putin quickly established a good chemistry; they had lots to talk about. He told the story of even Melania Trump poking her head in the room to try to break it up after it ran way over schedule.

In fact, Trump was supposed to go back to his hotel after that meeting and before the dinner. But because the meeting ran so long, the president and his entourage wound up going straight to the dinner at the concert hall.

INSKEEP: Do these details make U.S. allies uneasy?

HORSLEY: There are certainly going to be questions about the closeness between Trump and Putin, especially given some of the admiring statements that Trump made about the Russian president during the presidential campaign.

INSKEEP: OK, that's what we know. And we'll let you know more as we learn it. That's NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.