Political commentators and news outlets claimed this week that President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a “secret meeting” at a G-20 banquet earlier this month.
Trump and Putin had an informal, private conversation in plain view of world leaders at the dinner. Accounts differ as to the length of the discussion.
The news evoked strong reactions from political commentators on Twitter.
More tempered headlines described the exchange as a “second, undisclosed talk.”
Trump reacted on Twitter, calling the accounts “fake news.”
Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed the conversation Wednesday at a press briefing. “To try to create that there was some sort of private conversation in a room with 40-plus people seems a little bit ridiculous,” said Sanders.
The conversation took place in front of world leaders, spouses and translators at the banquet that Sanders described as a “social working dinner.”
“It’s not surprising for leaders to have informal pull-asides when they have business to discuss in the context of these summits,” President of Eurasia Group Ian Bremmer, who brought the story to national attention, told MSNBC.
The news came to light because the conversation, although private, was held in plain view. Sources with knowledge of the banquet informed Bremmer, and Buzzfeed learned about the “long chat” immediately after the dinner from a source who attended.
Bremmer described the conversation between the two leaders as oddly friendly. “What is unusual is the length, the warmth – in the context of what is already an unprecedented relationship,” Bremmer said.
His sources claimed the conversation – facilitated by a Russian translator – lasted up to an hour, an estimate the White House disputes. Trump told The New York Times Wednesday that the meeting may have lasted about 15 minutes and was mostly an exchange of pleasantries.
Sanders criticized the press for scrutinizing a dinner that was on the public G-20 schedule. “You guys came and took pictures of it. It wasn’t like this was some sort of hidden dinner,” said Sanders. The event was not open to the media, however, the press was allowed in to take some photos.
Reporters questioned why the White House did not disclose the conversation in a readout.
“Why not provide some sort of inkling of what was said in that conversation at the dinner?” one reporter asked at the White House press briefing. “Secondly, why did it take so long for the administration to talk about this conversation?”
Sanders responded that the president spoke with several leaders at the dinner and did not give readouts of each conversation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided a readout of a formal meeting between Trump and Putin earlier that day.
MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow criticized the lack of disclosure. “You have to imagine,” said Maddow, “If there’s one thing this White House might be aware of by now, it’s that undisclosed contacts between Americans associated with Donald Trump and Russian officials – particularly at the highest levels – that’s something that is of intense interest in this country.”
Although the White House did not disclose the interaction, an impromptu discussion in plain view of others does not constitute a “secret meeting,” a phrase which leaves readers with mistaken connotations of formality and deception.
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