(CNN)For all the hype, it wasn’t until after President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin were done talking, more than two hours after their G20 mini-summit began, that the real drama kicked off.
Trump and Putin entered the meeting with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign hanging over their heads. Putin, of course, has been accused of ordering it; members of Trump’s inner circle are at the center of a probe into whether they colluded with the Kremlin.
Settling on meddling
A day before their sit-down, Trump at a news conference in Poland further muddied the waters, suggesting other countries — with or instead of Russia — might have been responsible for the interference. “Nobody really knows,” he said.
There was a question as to whether he would raise the matter with Putin at all.
Trump did, ultimately, confront Putin. How he did it and whether he “strongly pressed” the issue — or simply took Putin’s denial at face value and moved on — is more difficult to discern. In the 72 hours since they parted ways, both sides have offered their own, Rashomon-like accounts of the interaction.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began a minor row early on when he said that Trump was on board with Putin’s account.
“President Trump said he’s heard Putin’s very clear statements that this is not true and that the Russian government didn’t interfere in the elections and that he accepts these statements,” Lavrov told reporters, according to a CNN translation. “That’s all.”
But no — there would be more. A senior Trump administration official denied that characterization and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who briefed the press separately, suggested a less cut-and-dry resolution.
“(Trump and Putin) had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject,” Tillerson said, speaking vaguely about what was discussed, except to note Putin’s denial. He suggested later on that the issue had been effectively sidelined, with “the Presidents rightly focused on how do we move forward from what may be simply an intractable disagreement at this point.”
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, asked about it during a Fox News interview on Sunday, was more direct.
Trump “absolutely did not believe” Putin, he said, and never, as Lavrov claimed, told his Russian counterpart that “certain circles” in the US were exaggerating evidence.
Still, the most dizzying questions to pop up in the wake of the meeting have pitted Trump against himself and, on Monday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin,” Trump tweeted early Sunday. “Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!”
But by the time Sanders spoke the next day, the story had changed. During an afternoon briefing, she said that Trump and Putin did, in fact, broach the subject.
“There were sanctions specific to election meddling that I believe were discussed,” Sanders told reporters, “but not beyond that.”
Tillerson had hinted at something similar during his initial review.
“With regard to the interference in the election, I think the President took note of actions that have been discussed by the Congress,” he said, appearing to reference the round now brewing on Capitol Hill. “Most recently, additional sanctions that have been voted out of the Senate to make it clear as to the seriousness of the issue.”
Cybersecurity squad goes boom … then bust
No one denies that there was discussion of a joint cybersecurity venture between the US and Russia. The only question seems to be why.
The plan, floated by Tillerson and Trump, who tweeted out the broad strokes early Sunday morning, was roundly mocked.
“Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican Russia hawk, tweeted on Sunday, after Trump posted to say, “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.”
Trump wasn’t the only one touting the odd alliance. His treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, praised the initiative during a Sunday interview on ABC News.
“What we want to make sure is that we coordinate with Russia, that we’re focused on cybersecurity together, that we make sure that they never interfere in any Democratic elections or conduct any cybersecurity,” he said.
By sundown, though, the boss had changed his mind.
“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen,” Trump tweeted. “It can’t — but a (partial Syrian) ceasefire can, & did!”