To get a sense of the paranoia surrounding anything to do with Donald Trump, consider what the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says about the meeting
Given the poor state of relations between Washington and Moscow and the controversy surrounding Russia’s efforts to interfere with the US presidential campaign, each and every encounter between Mr Putin and Mr Trump is bound to be carefully scrutinised.
Thus the apparently impromptu discussion between the two men at the G20 dinner inevitably raises many questions. What was President Trump seeking to do in approaching the Russian president? Were matters of substance discussed? If so, why was no formal note taken? And why did the US president have to rely upon a Russian official for translation?
This is all highly unusual, especially at a time when relations between the two countries are laden with so many problems.
Mr Trump also appeared unaware of another dimension – the message that his tete-a-tete would send to other leaders in the room, who must have watched the US president’s gambit with some unease.
As for the origins of this story, it is clear that it originates with a single individual, Ian Bremmer the President of the international consulting firm the Eurasia Group. Here is how the Guardian reports his account of the ‘meeting’
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.
This is utterly absurd. Discernable through the hysteria it becomes obvious what actually happened. During a dinner at which other G20 leaders were present Trump and Putin met and spoke with each other, though the amount of time they spent in each other’s company is disputed (the White House denies it was anything close to an hour).
This is not only perfectly normal. It is what such dinners are for: to enable leaders to get to know each other and to speak to each other in informal settings without their aides present.
No one expects serious business to be done during such meetings. In the absence of aides and with the leaders unprepared and with no formal record kept of what is said, conducting formal business during such meetings is impossible. To compare such informal meetings with proper summits is ridiculous.
It is universally acknowledged that establishing a personal relationship between leaders is essential for effective diplomacy. That is why these sort of dinners take place. Trump was simply doing his job by making the most of the opportunity provided by this one.
The White House has provided its response to the reporting of this meeting
During the course of the dinner, all the leaders circulated throughout the room and spoke with one another freely. 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.
This is obviously correct, and it has been echoed by this typically pithy comment by President Trump himself
What is disturbing about this story is not so much the gross misrepresentation of this perfectly innocuous meeting. Rather it is the revelations that the President is being straightforwardly spied on, so that he cannot have a conversation at a dinner party without news of it being broadcast, and having the nature of the meeting completely misrepresented, by the media.
This is straightforward sabotage of the President’s work. One does not have to like President Trump or agree with his policy of seeking a rapprochement with Russia to be deeply disturbed by it.