Saturday 23 March 2019

Trump-Putin summit ‘off to a good start’ in Helsinki

The US and Russian leaders held two hours of one-to-one discussions at the presidential palace.

The two leaders pose for photos (AP)
The two leaders pose for photos (AP)

By Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin and Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press

US president Donald Trump said a high stakes summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki has enjoyed a “good start”.

Mr Trump called his meeting with Mr Putin “a good start, a very good start for everybody” as the two leaders and their top advisers sat across the table from one another during lunch.

This follows more than two hours of one-to-one discussions involving just the US and Russian leaders, with only translators present.

The White House had scheduled 90 minutes for that meeting, while the Russians said it lasted two hours and 10 minutes.

The US president was joined at the lunch by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and other top aides.

After the lunch, Mr Trump and Mr Putin will appear for a joint news conference in Helsinki.

The two sides sit down to lunch (AP)

Even before Mr Trump and Mr Putin sat down on Monday, Russia’s government signalled that the two leaders are on the same page.

Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted “we agree” in reaction to Mr Trump’s morning tweet criticising US “foolishness and stupidity” for the state of relations between the two countries.

Mr Trump’s tweet said: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

The US leader has promised to raise Russian election meddling with Mr Putin, but he did not do so publicly when he discussed the agenda as they first met at the presidential palace in Helsinki.

Neither leader revealed what was discussed during their meeting, although Mr Trump listed a series of topics ahead of the talks that did not include Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The two leaders shake hands (AP)

After arriving at the presidential palace, Mr Trump said of the two countries: “We have not been getting along well for the last number of years.

“But I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. I really think the world wants to see us get along.”

Mr Putin said he and Mr Trump have maintained regular contact through phone calls and meetings at international events, but “the time has come to have a thorough discussion on various international problems and sensitive issues”.

He added: “There are quite a few of them for us to pay attention to.”

The pair appeared relaxed during their initial meeting (AP)

Monday’s session was condemned in advance by members of US congress from both parties after the US indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Mr Trump’s presidential campaign.

Mr Trump said last week that he would raise the meddling issue again with Mr Putin, but questions have been swirling about whether the US leader will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the interference that prompted a special investigation probe that Trump has repeatedly labelled a “witch hunt”.

Addressing reporters before the one-on-one meeting, Mr Putin struck a casual pose during Mr Trump’s remarks, slouching in his chair with his legs wide and eyes low.

That the meeting has taken place at all can be regarded as a triumph of sorts by Mr Putin (AP)

He nodded along to some of Mr Trump’s remarks before they were translated, showcasing his fluency in English. Mr Trump leaned forward in his chair, his hands tented in front of him and frequently glanced over at the Russian president. At one point, he shot Mr Putin a wink.

After Mr Trump concluded his remarks, American reporters shouted several questions about whether he would bring up election meddling during his discussions with Putin.

Mr Trump did not respond; Mr Putin appeared to smirk.

With that, the leaders gave a quick handshake and their private meeting in the opulent Gothic Hall was under way – just the two of them, each with a translator.

They continued the discussion with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room.

Press Association

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