JAPAN — President Donald Trump is receiving some backlash over how he responded to a journalist’s question regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Will you tell Russia not to meddle in the election?”
“Yes of course I will,” the President responded before turning towards his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and adding “Don’t meddle in the election.”
It was an off-hand moment that came at the start of the men’s first meeting since the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
President Trump said he enjoyed a “very, very good relationship” with Putin, and said “many positive things are going to come out of the relationship.”
“We have many things to discuss, including trade and some disarmament, some little protectionism, in a very positive way,” President Trump said.
Some criticized the President saying it wasn’t the serious confrontation that the President needed to have with Putin. In the seven months since Mr. Trump last encountered Putin, the Russians have detained a former Marine on espionage charges and were accused by Mueller in his report of waging a “sweeping and systematic” influence campaign during the 2016 election.
That’s a distant cry from the warmed-up relations with Russia that President Trump entered office vowing to pursue. When he sat down with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit on Friday, ties between the two countries were near the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
In President Trump’s view, that’s the fault of Democrats and overzealous investigators intent on finding links between his campaign and Russian officials.
As Mr. Trump was traveling to the G20 summit, he lobbed criticism at Japan, India and Germany over trade and defense matters — but not toward Russia.
President Trump met the leaders of those three countries earlier Friday: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In those sessions, President Trump cast an optimistic view on trade, saying countries were desperate for access to US markets.
“We’re the hottest country in the world right now, the United States, and everyone wants a part of it,” he said before meeting Modi, whom he criticized on the way to the G20 for applying retaliatory tariffs on the United States.
In a sign of his close study of Trump, Abe provided the US President with a map depicting new Japanese investments in the US with the header: “Japan has FIVE Additional Investments in JUST ONE MONTH.”
Unlike many of his foreign peers, Putin hasn’t engaged in that type of effort to woo Trump, though such attempts haven’t appeared necessary.
“Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet there is a very strong domestic backlash after that meeting. But, in part, it’s because there’s a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is,” said Heather Conley, the Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But the President does not take that policy approach and, I think, continues to create the domestic backlash.”
US officials told reporters last week the session Friday had no “formal agenda,” though listed Iran, Ukraine and the Middle East as likely points of discussion. The Kremlin has been similarly vague about an agenda.
Neither side is casting the meeting as a formal summit like the one the two leaders convened last summer in Helsinki. After that meeting, President Trump appeared to take Putin’s word that Russia didn’t work to sway the result of the 2016 election.
The two men were due to meet again at last year’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires, but that meeting was canceled after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships and detaining three dozen sailors. President Trump tweeted at the time that another meeting wouldn’t occur until the matter was resolved.
It’s not resolved, with the ships still in Russian hands and the sailors held in pre-trial detention. Ukraine has demanded the release of the sailors, which it has deemed prisoners of war.
That did not stop President Trump from scheduling the meeting this week, and during his photo-op with Putin, he said he hadn’t raised the matter.
“We haven’t discussed it,” Trump said.
Among the topics he was likeliest to raise is a potential new arms control treaty brokered between the US, Russia and China that would replace agreements he’s withdrawn from or let expire.
It’s not clear whether he raised the case of Paul Whelan, a discharged US Marine reservist who was arrested in late December and accused by Russian authorities of espionage. He denies being a spy and his family says he was in Russia to attend a wedding.
The week the US Embassy in Moscow sent a note of protest to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Whelan’s treatment in a Moscow jail.
“We were asked to investigate this situation and ensure the safety and protection of Mr. Whelan,” the embassy said in a statement. “The welfare of US citizens abroad is our top priority.”
Whelman remains in pre-trial detention.