DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin did not have a formal meeting while they were in Vietnam for an economic summit, but the two appeared to be chumming around nonetheless and are said to have struck a deal on Syria.
The Kremlin released a statement Saturday that stated that the leaders met during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Denang and reached agreement on a number of principles for the future of the civil war-torn country now that the Islamic State group has largely been pushed out. Among the agreements’ key points, according to the Russians, were an affirmation of de-escalation zones, a system to prevent dangerous incidents between American and Russian forces, and a commitment to a peaceful solution governed by a Geneva peace process.
The Kremlin quickly promoted the agreement as the White House stayed silent.
Repeated requests for comment to U.S. officials went unanswered, and journalists traveling with Trump were not granted access to any of the APEC events he participated in in the picturesque tropical seaside city.
Snippets of video of conference events have shown Trump and Putin shaking hands and chatting, including during the world leaders’ traditional group photo. The two walked together down a path to the photo site, conversing amiably, with Trump punctuating his thoughts with hand gestures and Putin smiling.
But a formal meeting never happened in Danang, despite rampant would-they-or-wouldn’t-they-meet intrigue that began before Trump left the U.S. and continued through the first week of the trip.
White House officials worked quietly behind the scenes negotiating with the Kremlin over a formal meeting. The Russians raised expectations for such a session and Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Asia that it was “expected we’ll meet with Putin” to discuss issues including ramping up pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic weapons program.As speculation built, the two sides tried to craft the framework of a deal on the future of Syria that Trump and Putin could announce in a formal bilateral meeting, according to two administration officials not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
Though North Korea and the Ukraine had been discussed, the two sides focused on trying to strike an agreement about a path to resolve Syria’s civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, according to officials. But the talks stalled and, minutes before Air Force One touched down in Vietnam, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the meeting was off.
Asked about the outcome, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later snapped at reporters: “Why are you asking me? Ask the Americans.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that even without a formal meeting, “Both presidents are in town, and their paths will cross one way or another.”
That they did Friday night during the summit’s welcome gala: The two men, each wearing traditional blue Vietnamese shifts, shook hands and greeted one another as they stood side-by-side for the group photo of world leaders.
On Saturday, they were also seen shaking hands and speaking briefly during one meeting, according to a Fox News videographer who was the only American journalist allowed into the room. Trump and Putin were also seen chatting, with plenty of hand gestures from Trump, as they walked side by side to a dramatic vista overlooking the South China Sea for another group picture.
The relationship between Trump and Putin always draws great scrutiny.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential election in order to help Trump win. Putin denied interfering in the campaign. Meanwhile, a special counsel investigation of potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides so far has resulted in two indictments for financial and other crimes unrelated to the campaign, as well as a guilty plea.
Trump attended meetings and a lunch Saturday before heading to the capital city of Hanoi for a state visit. He’ll attend a banquet Saturday night and, on Sunday, meet with the country’s president and prime minister before heading to his final stop: the Philippines.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.
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