A White House official has acknowledged the two presidents met again informally after their bilateral talks at the G20 summit in Germany in July.
Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin held a second, previously undisclosed meeting during the G20 summit in Germany, the White House confirmed on Tuesday.
There was much media scrutiny of the leaders’ formal bilateral talks on 7 July in which, the US president later said, Putin denied allegations that he led efforts to interfere in last year’s US election.
Later that evening, Trump and Putin met again informally, a White House official acknowledged on Tuesday – but only after it was publicly revealed by Ian Bremmer, the president of the international consulting firm Eurasia Group.
Bremmer said there was a dinner that evening for the G20 heads of state and their spouses, though not all of them attended. “There were a lot of empty seats,” he continued. “Donald Trump got up from the table and sat down with Putin for about an hour. It was very animated and very friendly. Putin’s translator was translating. I found out about it because people were startled.”
There was no one else within earshot, Bremmer added, and it is not known what the men discussed. Trump was not joined in the conversation by his own translator, which is thought to be a breach of national security protocol. The White House later said that the translator who accompanied Trump spoke Japanese, not Russian, and that was why Trump and Putin spoke through the Russian translator.
Bremmer added: “It’s very clear that Trump’s best single relationship in the G20 is with Putin. US allies were surprised, flummoxed, disheartened. You’ve got Trump in the room with all these allies and who’s the one he spends time with?”
Such was the level of concern that someone decided to bring it to Bremmer’s attention. He said he had expected the White House to go public. “I sat on this for days hoping they would talk about it. I knew last week. It didn’t happen. I’m an analyst; I’m not in the business of breaking news,” he said.
There is no official government record of the meeting and it was not previously disclosed by the White House, which is facing investigations into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties by the special counsel Robert Mueller and two congressional committees.
“During the course of the dinner, all the leaders circulated throughout the room and spoke with one another freely,” a senior administration official said in a statement Tuesday night, adding: “There was no ‘second meeting’ between President Trump and President Putin, just a brief conversation at the end of a dinner. The insinuation that the White House has tried to ‘hide’ a second meeting is false, malicious and absurd. It is not merely perfectly normal, it is part of a president’s duties, to interact with world leaders.”
Also on Tuesday night, the president tweeted to say the news coverage of the “secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick’”, insisting twice that the press was aware of the dinner. While it is true that the dinner was well known and covered by the news media, the press at large did not know about the private conversation between Putin and Trump.
Trump’s presidency has been overshadowed by allegations that his election campaign colluded with Russia. Last week it emerged that his son, Donald Trump Jr, held a meeting with a Russian lawyer and Russian American political operative with a view to receiving allegedly incriminating information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. Trump Jr claims it led nowhere and denies wrongdoing.
Trump has consistently and mysteriously refused to criticise the Russian leader. Bremmer said: “I’ve never in my life seen a relationship between two major countries where the interests are so misaligned while the leaders are so buddy-buddy. It doesn’t add up.
“Trump has been inconsistent on his China policy, he’s been inconsistent on his Nato policy. On any foreign policy issue he’s been on both sides. Except Russia. It doesn’t make sense. The fact he was willing to do this in front of global leaders shows he just doesn’t care how America is perceived.”
The first meeting was scheduled to last 30 minutes but went on for more than two hours. During a flight on Air Force One last week, the US president said he raised the issue of election meddling twice and Putin denied it. “I said, look, we can’t – we can’t have – now, he said ‘absolutely not’ twice. What do you do? End up in a fistfight with somebody, OK?”