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‘Putin likes small meetings’: Tillerson and Trump are diplomatically outgunned at G-20

President Trump met with President Putin on July 7, 2017 at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. (Video: The Washington Post)

HAMBURG — President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are holding their first sit-down meeting on Friday, and the Russians in the room have way more diplomatic experience.

The meeting is small-circle — just Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. And translators for both sides.

The tight arrangement — known to be favored by Putin, who likes to keep meetings intimate — cuts out the White House officials with significant government experience. Putin has spent his life on the public payroll, first as a KGB officer, later as the preeminent leader of Russia for the past 17 years. Lavrov is a veteran and wily diplomat, known for twisting his opponents into knots. Both have haggled with dozens, maybe hundreds, of world leaders.

Neither Trump nor Tillerson, meanwhile, held public office or engaged in diplomacy until January. In previous administrations, such meetings, particularly first encounters, would more typically be bolstered with the national security adviser and the relevant strategist on the National Security Council.

Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has spent his career as a decorated Army officer and strategist. Fiona Hill, Trump’s Russia adviser, wrote a biography of Putin and has spent decades researching the Kremlin. She also was national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council under President George W. Bush.

The arrangement of the meeting has drawn some concern from one of President Barack Obama’s top Russia officials.

“Putin likes small meetings. This means WH is letting Kremlin dictate the terms of this meeting. HR, at a minimum, should also be there,” wrote Michael McFaul, Obama’s top Russia adviser and later his ambassador in Moscow, on Twitter, using an abbreviation for the White House.

The White House did not respond to an inquiry about the composition of the meeting.

Tillerson has met Putin repeatedly in his previous capacity as the chief of ExxonMobil and has negotiated business deals with leaders around the world. Trump, meanwhile, has concluded some real estate deals that have occasionally involved governments as negotiating partners.

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