US President Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin talked one on one behind closed doors for two-plus hours before the American leader declared their meeting was off to a "very, very good start for everybody."Neither leader revealed what was discussed. But in advance of the talks, Trump listed a series of topics that did not include Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
"We have not been getting along well for the last number of years," Trump said after arriving at the Presidential Palace in Finland's capital, where the leaders are meeting. "But I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. ... I really think the world wants to see us get along."
Putin, for his part, said he and 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."
"Yes I wanted him to win because he talked about normalising Russian-American relations," Putin said.
Denials of collusion
Their opening one-on-one session had been scheduled to run 90 minutes. The Russians said it lasted two hours and 10 minutes. The White House wouldn't immediately confirm the timing.
Russia probe a "disaster" for US, Trump says
Putin said at the press conference that Trump brought up the "so-called Russian interference" in the election during the summit.
"I had to repeat that the Russian state never interfered, and does not plan to interfere in internal American electoral process," Putin said.
For his part, Trump said that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has been a "disaster" for the United States and has kept America and Russia "separated".
The US president went on to reiterate his statement that there was "no collusion" between his campaign and the Russian government.
Addressing reporters before the one-on-one meeting, Putin struck a casual pose during Trump's remarks, slouching in his chair with his legs wide and eyes low. He nodded along to some of Trump's remarks before they were translated, showcasing his fluency in English. 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 Putin a wink. After Trump concluded his remarks, American reporters shouted several questions about whether he would bring up election meddling during his discussions with Putin.
Trump did not respond; 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.
Trump’s conciliatory approach to Putin earned him a rare rebuke from his fellow Republican, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who said that the US president "must appreciate that Russia is not our ally".
"There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy," Ryan added in a statement.
Grab-bag of protesters
Out on the streets, the summit attracted a grab-bag of protesters, with abortion-rights activists wearing artificially bulging bellies and Trump masks, anti-fascist protesters bearing signs with expletive-laden insults, and free traders, anti-war Ukrainians and gay rights supporters making their voices heard.
The summit began just hours after Trump blamed the United States and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea for a low-point in US-Russia relations. The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.
"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse," Trump tweeted Monday morning, blaming "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"
The Russian foreign ministry responded by liking Trump's tweet and then replying: "We agree."
Observers have raised concerns about the fact that the leaders met alone during their first meeting, but for a pair of interpreters, meaning there were no corroborating witnesses to accurately represent what was said during the conversation.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP, REUTERS)