Today, President Donald Trump met President Vladimir Putin in person for the first time. They exchanged collegial comments and handshakes before the meeting, and Trump stated that “we look forward to a lot of positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned. “
The meeting was scheduled to be thirty minutes, but lasted more than two hours, indicating that they had a productive exchange.
After the meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was present during the conversation, said that the first issue raised by Trump was the Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. election. Putin reiterated his previous denials of Russian involvement in hacking and asked to see the evidence for this claim.
Trump’s hand was forced in this regard because if he had not addressed the election issue, most observers would interpret this as giving fuel to the concerns about the Russian collusion conspiracy theory. Tillerson stated that both presidents agreed that the topic “is of substantial hindrance” to the relation between the two superpowers.
This did not stop the talks to proceed along fruitful lines, however. “I think the president is rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point,” Tillerson said according to The Telegraph. “The meeting was very constructive” and the two leaders “connected very quickly” according to AP News.
Election hacking notwithstanding, the two presidents talked mostly about Syria, looking for ways to end the conflict in a way that is amicable to the interests of both parties. Tillerson did not volunteer much information from this part of the talks but did indicate that the discussions were substantial.
Before his inauguration, there were widespread concerns from the left that Trump was a “madman” who would destabilize the world and threaten a nuclear war. After direct meetings with both the Chinese and Russian presidents, Trump is eroding these fears by showing himself as a dignified and perhaps even a practical statesman in foreign relations.
The apprehensions about Trump seem now to be migrating towards respect. He has managed to bolster his reputation as a tough negotiator who puts American interests first while at the same time radiating a genuine willingness to reach out and generate stable relations with perceived antagonists such as China and Russia.
Trump began this transition towards statesman by achieving what by many thought was an impossible reframing of the talks with China on North Korea. To save face, China has been forced to take a more active role in dealing with the rogue Korean nation.
Now Trump seems to be on the cusp of something similar with Russia. If the outcome of these talks is to establish a fruitful cooperation in creating peace and stability in Syria, Trump will cement the growing impression of him as a tough but fair leader of the free world who can push forward U.S. goals in a non-confrontational manner.