President Trump and Vladimir Putin had their first highly anticipated meeting at the G20 summit, but that’s not what this new report is about. We all knew about the initial scheduled session with the Russian strongman, but we were not aware of a second meeting at this global conference until it was disclosed by Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer yesterday. It took place at the dinner later that evening, and Bremmer said he was informed by two people at the banquet who claimed that the conversation lasted “roughly an hour.” The White House is not disputing that Trump and Putin spoke, and is only pushing back against the length of the conversation.
Melania Trump was sitting next to Putin at the dinner, so that easily could have been the impetus for Trump to leave his seat in the middle of the meal, but it doesn't explain the hour-long conversation alone with Putin that followed.
The only other person present for this impromptu chat was Putin's interpreter. No reports indicate that Melania participated, and even the White House is not alleging that the First Lady took part in it, as they simply said that “President Trump went over to Mrs. Trump, where he spoke briefly with President Putin.” The White House staff doesn't even know what happened, as an administration official told The Washington Post that “the only version of the conversation provided to White House aides was that given by Trump himself.” Pool reporters observed Putin's motorcade leave the dinner well after host Angela Merkel had departed, and Trump's coterie left four minutes after Putin's.
Before we even get into the horrible optics of Trump slinking away from his table to join Putin alone for all to see, there is a simple strategic blunder to this move that is catastrophically stupid even if Trump is completely innocent of collusion with the Kremlin. This was an exclusive dinner that consisted almost entirely of state leaders, their spouses and translators—and Trump's designated translator only spoke Japanese, as he was seated next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinz? Abe's wife. Relying entirely on Putin's translator ensured that Trump had no power over that conversation, and Putin now has all the leverage to spin this however he wants—as Joe Biden's former national security adviser highlighted.
Trump has already begun to mischaracterize the reports, as he claimed on Twitter that stories say the dinner was “secret.” There was nothing “secret” about this tale, as Ian Bremmer told Bloomberg:
“Pretty much everyone at the dinner thought this was really weird, that here is the president of the United States, who clearly wants to display that he has a better relationship personally with President Putin than any of us, or simply doesn’t care. They were flummoxed, they were confused and they were startled.”
The reason we know about this meeting is because it took place out in the open, and some attendees told one of the most well-connected political scientists in the world. If it were any other two countries, this tableside chat would not be a big deal, but Trump has connected himself to Putin, and his administration has repeatedly lied about their contacts with Russian officials—and now we have another undisclosed meeting to add to the pile.
Trump and Putin’s disclosed meeting earlier that day has also raised some questions. There were multiple reports ahead of it that Trump administration officials wanted to stick one of the State Department’s biggest Kremlin hawks in the session—at the very least to improve the optics of the entire chat. As we now know, that didn’t happen. The only Americans sent to join Trump and Putin were Secretary of State/Putin’s former business partner Rex Tillerson and a translator. Because of this lack of transparency, we have wildly different reports about what was said during that first meeting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Trump accepted Putin’s assertion that he did not meddle in our election, and Trump himself has pushed back against this storyline.
The takeaway from this entire ordeal is that Donald Trump had two meetings with Vladimir Putin at the G20 that stretched across roughly three and a half hours (or a little over two and a half if you believe the White House’s version of events). Only two other Americans were present for the first, and Trump attended the second one alone. For a man who is under investigation for his ties to Russia, you would think that Trump would want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety on this topic—but if anything, his actions have heightened that scrutiny. If Trump has nothing to hide about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, why would he drastically limit the amount of people who can confirm what was said between the two at their first official meeting, and then initiate a second undisclosed impromptu session conducted only by himself?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.