Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had spent most of the evening on opposite sides of the table at a dinner organized as part of the G20 meeting in Hamburg.
The day, July 7, had been tense. World leaders tussled over trade and climate change. Hours earlier, the US and Russian presidents had met for the first time, a monumental occasion in one of the most watched, and most controversial, relationships in history.
At the dinner at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall on the banks of the Elbe River, Putin was seated next to US first lady Melania Trump, with a translator seated behind the two. Donald Trump sat next to Juliana Awada, the first lady of Argentina.
At the end of the one-and-a-half-hour-long meal, Trump walked round the table to talk to the Russian president. In normal times, two major leaders having a post-meal chat at a summit would not be big news; such informal conversations are a central feature of every international gathering.
But these are not normal times in US–Russia relations, nor was the conversation entirely normal either. Now, 10 days later, the Trump–Putin conversation — first revealed by BuzzFeed News the following morning — has blown up into a major controversy, with the White House facing criticism that it had not previously disclosed the conversation.
While some news reports have described the second conversation between Trump and Putin as undisclosed and secret, high-level sources who were in the room that evening told BuzzFeed News it took place within sight of the 18 other world leaders, their spouses, and G20 government aides who were nearby.
What caught other leaders’ attention when Trump walked over to Putin towards the end of the evening was not that the conversation was happening — but how long it lasted. A source present on the night told BuzzFeed News the two chatted for a “long time”, emphasizing the point — “long” — several times in an exchange of messages.
Putin and Trump spoke for about an hour. They were among the last to leave the dinner, with Trump’s motorcade departing just before midnight, a few minutes after Putin’s.
The length of the conversation is even more notable given that it was the two leaders’ second extended encounter of the summit. Earlier in the day, a scheduled meeting between them had gone on for more than two hours, far longer than the 30 minutes originally allocated.
It is unusual for there to be such lengthy informal meetings between leaders without aides present — and the fact that there are no notes of the discussion, and no national security and foreign policy personnel were present, has caused concern. Only Trump and Putin, as well as a Russian translator, know what was said.
Mike Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and director for Russia at the National Security Council under Obama, said: “Having staffed a G20 summit before, I don't believe there's really anything all that unusual about two presidents chatting privately with a single interpreter. What's noteworthy, and even striking, is that Trump and Putin spoke for close to an hour after already having spent over two hours in an earlier bilateral meeting the same day. That's an exceptionally long time for a private pull-aside, which typically lasts only a few minutes, and begs the question of what was discussed.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, described the exchange with Putin as “pleasantries and small talk.”
Spicer’s account contrasts with descriptions of Trump previously shared by a number of European officials who have attended international meetings where he was present, including the G7 and NATO summits earlier this year. Numerous officials have told BuzzFeed News that Trump doesn’t come across as keen to engage in conversations and banter with other leaders, with one official even suggesting after the G7 that they had the impression the US president had tried to avoid getting caught up in small talk with fellow leaders.
European officials are as perplexed as some Americans as to what was discussed at the meeting.
One European official speculated that “maybe Trump was jealous of Melania” because Putin had been talking to her, through his translator, for most of the evening. A former US official described this interpretation as “ridiculous.”