The meeting between Trump and Putin will be hotly anticipated and closely watched. It will be their first official encounter that does not take place on the sidelines of a broader international gathering. It would garner intense scrutiny because of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination between Moscow and Trump’s presidential campaign. And it could overshadow the July meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, raising fresh questions about Trump’s commitment to America’s traditional alliances.
Bolton, in a news conference in the Russian capital after his meetings, dismissed those concerns while chiding Trump’s domestic critics.
“A lot of people have said or implied over time that a meeting between President Trump and President Putin would somehow prove some nexus between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which is complete nonsense,” Bolton said. Trump, he went on, believes that “what must guide his conduct of American foreign policy is the pursuit of American national interests, and he judges, correctly in my view, that this bilateral summit between himself and President Putin is something that he needs to do and will do regardless of political criticism at home.”
Bolton’s push for engagement with Putin struck a sharp contrast with the longtime hawk’s harsh criticism of the Russian president before he took over as Trump’s national security adviser in April. Last year, he described Russian interference in the 2016 election as “a true act of war” and concluded: “Negotiate with Russia at your peril.”
On Wednesday, however, Bolton told Putin at the outset of their meeting he hoped Russia and the United States could find “areas where we can agree and make progress together.” He quipped that he looked forward to “hearing about how you handled the World Cup so successfully,” drawing a big smile from the Russian president.
“Even in earlier days, when our countries had differences, our leaders and their advisers met,” Bolton said. “I think that was good for both countries, good for stability in the world, and President Trump feels very strongly on that subject.”
Putin warmly greeted Bolton in a grand oval meeting hall at the Kremlin, flanked by statues of Russian czars set before lime-painted walls. The president opened the meeting by reiterating his frequent contention that U.S.-Russian relations are in a poor state in large part because of the domestic political environment in the United States.
“Your visit here to Moscow inspires hope that we will be able to take first steps to restore full-fledged relations between Russia and the United States,” Putin said. “Russia never sought confrontation, and I hope that today we will be able to talk about what we can do from both sides in order to restore full-fledged relations on the foundation of equality and of respect for each other’s interests.”
The meeting also included talks on Iran, Syria and nuclear arms control, officials said. The discussions “very briefly” touched on allegations of Russian election interference, Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said.
“From our side, it was clearly stated that the Russian state did not interfere and does not interfere in domestic political processes in the United States, and most certainly did not interfere in the 2016 election,” Ushakov said.
Bolton said the issue of election interference would be part of the conversation when Putin and Trump meet. Asked about his prior writings on the matter at his news conference, Bolton said he would not comment on statements he made before entering his current job.
“Right now, I’m an adviser to President Trump,” Bolton said. “It’s his agenda that we’re pursuing.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Trump and Putin will probably meet “in the not-too-distant future” after Bolton’s visit to Moscow. Russian officials have sought such a meeting for months and have blamed U.S. domestic politics for the difficulty in making it happen. Trump also has pushed for a meeting with Putin despite resistance from senior political aides and diplomats.
The Trump-Putin meeting is expected to take place while Trump is in Europe in mid-July. He is scheduled to attend the NATO summit meeting July 11 and 12 in Brussels and to visit Britain on July 13. Earlier Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on news reports that a Trump-Putin meeting could take place in Vienna or Helsinki.
“We cannot boast about a wealth of bilateral contacts in our bilateral relationship,” Peskov said, describing the purpose of Wednesday’s meetings with Bolton. “Such contacts are used to exchange views on the main problems in international affairs — they are rather clear and obvious — and to discuss the sad state of our bilateral relationship.”
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.