Trump and Putin: Did President Break Protocol by Talking to Russian Leader Alone During Second Meeting?

Trump and Putin at G20
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

U.S. President Donald Trump has made his intention to have a close personal relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, abundantly clear on multiple occasions.

But that relationship now appears to have taken on a new significance: Hours after an official head-to-head with the Russian leader, Trump held an hour-long, private and previously undisclosed conversation with Putin at a dinner at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Coming in the context of multiple U.S. investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government, the meeting has sparked speculation about the nature of what was discussed—and even whether the U.S. president violated national security protocol.

Trump and Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. Steffen Kugler/Courtesy of Bundesregierung/Handout/Reuters

Read more: Putin is helping Trump because he wants to protect his secret stash of money, a U.S. businessman claims

The meeting was first reported by Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, who claimed that other attendees of the dinner—hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel—were "flummoxed" by Trump's decision to initiate a private conversation with Putin.

"Pretty much everyone at the dinner thought this was really weird, that here is the president of the United States, who clearly wants to display that he has a better relationship personally with President Putin than any of us, or simply doesn't care," said Bremmer, according to the New York Times.

Bremmer said that the meeting lasted for around an hour; Trump left his seat and approached Putin, who was seated next to the U.S. first lady, Melania Trump, at the post-summit dinner for world leaders and their spouses.

The White House has confirmed that the meeting took place. But perhaps the most intriguing piece of information to emerge about it was that there was no American official besides Trump involved. Trump and Putin spoke through the Russian president's translator, since the American interpreter who travelled with Trump did not speak Russian, the White House said.

Trump speaks to Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It has led to suggestions, from Bremmer and others, that Trump may have broken protocol by holding an off-record, private meeting with Putin. Bremmer said that the fact that only Putin and his translator were present meant the meeting represented a "breach of national security protocol." Democrat senator Chris Coons, speaking to CNN, suggested that Trump's failure to bring a U.S. translator to the meeting was a "basic failure in terms of national security protocol."

Bremmer compared the meeting to encounters between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak held in 2016. The meetings were not disclosed by Sessions, who was a surrogate of the Trump campaign at the time, and led to him recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

The absence of another U.S. official or interpreter means that there will be no record of the transcript or contents of the meeting in Washington; observers will be solely reliant on the Russian account of the meeting for an indication of what was discussed.

G20 Summit
Argentinia's President Mauricio Macri, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. John MACDOUGALL/POOL/Reuters

State Department protocol says that a meeting between the U.S. president and foreign leaders are usually arranged in collaboration with the ambassador of the relevant country and the president's national security advisor. The Office of the Chief of Protocol—which has been without a chief since Trump came to office—coordinates the finer details of the meeting.

But White House officials have denied that there was anything untoward about the meeting and said it was part of the president's duties to reach out to foreign leaders.

"It is not merely perfectly normal, it is part of a president's duties, to interact with world leaders. Throughout the G20 and in all his other foreign engagements, President Trump has demonstrated American leadership by representing our interests and values on the world stage," said a White House official, cited by political news site The Hill.

Trump himself responded to the breaking reports on Tuesday by tweeting that claims of a "secret dinner" with Putin were "sick." "Even a dinner arranged for top 20 leaders in Germany is made to look sinister!" said Trump.

Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is "sick." All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2017

The Fake News is becoming more and more dishonest! Even a dinner arranged for top 20 leaders in Germany is made to look sinister!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2017

The meeting, and the fact that it was undisclosed, will likely bring further speculation to the relationship between Trump's campaign and Russia. It comes following the revelation that Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016. The meeting was organized after a publicist, Rob Goldstone, told Trump Jr. that the lawyer had information from the Russian government that could help the Trump campaign.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who is heading up an independent probe into the alleged ties between Trump's campaign and Russia, has reportedly included the Trump Jr. meeting in the scope of his investigation.