According to two widely divergent witness accounts, Donald Trump either “pressed” Vladimir Putin repeatedly on Friday to admit that Russia helped him get elected president of the United States — by stealing and releasing embarrassing emails from Democrats — or told the Russian leader that he accepted his claim that Russia had nothing to do with the hacking and called concern over the issue “exaggerated.”
Those two very different accounts of what was said in the meeting between Trump and Putin in Hamburg, Germany, came in dueling press briefings given after it by the only other senior officials in the room when the conversation took place: Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
“The President opened the meeting with President Putin by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Tillerson told American reporters, according to audio recorded by PBS Newshour.
“Now they had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson continued. “The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement; President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”
“The two leaders agreed though,” Tillerson added, “that this is a substantial hinderance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward, and agreed to exchange further work regarding commitments on non-interference.”
The Russians, Tillerson said, also asked to see whatever proof of their role in the hacking American intelligence agencies claim to have.
Without promising to divulge such information, Tillerson said Trump was more “focused on, ‘How do we move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point?’”
However, Lavrov, who is fluent in both Russian and English, offered a very different summary of the conversation. Trump, he told Russian reporters, had raised the issue during a broader conversation about threats posed to society by the internet, including terrorism and child pornography.
“President Trump said that in the U.S. there are still some circles who are talking about Russian alleged intrusion and Russian alleged attempts to influence the U.S. election,” Lavrov said, according to translation from Ruptly, a Russian state-owned news agency.
“President Trump said that this campaign has already taken on a rather strange character because over the many months that these accusations have been made, not a single fact has been presented,” Lavrov added. “President Trump said that he had heard the clear statements from President Putin about this being untrue, that the Russian leadership did not interfere in the election, and that he accepts these statements.”
While what exactly was said behind closed doors is a matter of dispute, Ruptly managed to capture an exchange between the two leaders at the start of their meeting, in which they shared a laugh about the American reporters in the room.