“We again returned to the issues of fighting terrorism and cybersecurity,” Putin said.
Omitting any mention of a conversation about political interference, Putin raised the possibility that Trump hadn't brought it up during their two-hour sit-down on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
But the White House did not allow that notion to hang in the air for long. Press secretary Sean Spicer gathered reporters for a news conference at which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the room, said Trump made meddling the first topic and that he and Putin “had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then told reporters that Trump accepted Putin's assurance that Russia did not interfere in the election. An unnamed “senior administration official” followed up by telling CNN that Trump did no such thing.
This is the messaging game. At least the White House came to play. It was not clear before the meeting that it would.
The following Associated Press report crossed the wire early Friday morning:
The Kremlin says that President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump have exchanged a handshake and a few words ahead of their sit-down at the G-20 summit.Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin and Trump “shook hands and told each other that they will shortly have a separate meeting.”
Note the source. The Kremlin, not the White House, notified reporters of the first face-to-face encounter between Trump and Putin ahead of their sit-down later in the day. A video posted online by the German government, which is hosting the Group of 20 summit, confirmed that Trump and Putin did indeed shake hands and exchange pleasantries.
A handshake is a pretty mundane event. There is not much opportunity for propaganda or even subtle spin in such a simple gesture. But as U.S. journalists try to learn as much as possible about the more significant interactions between Trump and Putin, it matters a great deal whether the White House or the Kremlin supplies information.
Because reporters did not witness the presidents' talks firsthand, they have to rely on the accounts of the American and Russian officials in the room. In the past, the Russian side has been more forthcoming.
Recall that the White House's official readout of a May 10 meeting between Trump and Lavrov in the Oval Office neglected to mention the inclusion of Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. American journalists found out about his participation through photos released by Russian state media — the only media permitted to document the session.
When Tillerson traveled to Moscow in April, American reporters learned about a previously unscheduled meeting with Putin from the Kremlin. After allowing U.S. journalists to accompany him to a meeting with Lavrov, Tillerson ditched the reporters before meeting Putin at the Kremlin.
At one point during Tillerson's trip, Lavrov told reporters that the United States and Russia had agreed that the United Nations should investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria — a false claim that suggested that the administration was less than certain about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did, in fact, deploy chemical weapons against his own citizens.
Russia, a Syrian ally, wanted to signal to the world that the United States had some doubts about Assad's guilt.
A State Department that regularly engages with reporters might have set the record straight immediately. Instead, 1 hour and 43 minutes passed between the AP's initial report of Lavrov's claim and a follow-up report featuring an on-the-record denial from a Tillerson spokesman.
The White House moved faster Friday.
This post has been updated.