Prospect of Trump, Putin meeting hangs over Asia-Pacific summit

(CNN) — A possible meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here in Vietnam, threatening to overshadow the President’s lengthy trip through Asia.

Whether Trump will meet with Putin on the sidelines of the economic summit remains an open question, even though a top Russian aide told state run media on Thursday that the two world leaders were scheduled to meet on Friday.

Any possible meeting, though, would come amid a series of investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, an issue that has plagued the Trump administration for months. In a recent swirl of action, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation issued his first indictments last week, bringing charges against former top Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who have pleaded not guilty.

Trump has long denied any collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives during the 2016 election. But US intelligence agencies concluded in a report released earlier this year that Russia ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election.

The delicateness of the Putin-Trump meeting was laid bare on Thursday, when the two sides gave dramatically different statements on whether the two leaders would even meet in the first place.

Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told state-run news organization Itar Tass that Putin and Trump would meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit on Friday, adding that the two sides had already agreed to the time and place.

While briefing reporters in China, though, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to say whether Putin and Trump would meet in Vietnam, telling reporters that officials are working to determine whether the two world leaders have sufficient areas of substance to discuss.

“When the two leaders meet, is there something sufficiently substantive?” Tillerson said. “No conclusion has been made on that.”

Given the intense focus on any interactions between Trump, his associates and Russian operatives, the meeting — particularly what is said and not said — could overshadow the focus of Trump’s trip to Vietnam, where the President is set to discuss business, trade and security with an array of Asian leaders.

One cause for concern on the American side is how Trump and Putin’s first meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany caused a diplomatic dust-up over whether Trump accepted Putin’s assurances there was no Russian involvement in the 2016 American election.

Trump opened his first sessions with Putin by “raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Tillerson told reporters after the bilateral meeting. “The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”

Tillerson didn’t say whether Trump accepted his denial. But while Tillerson was briefing US media, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Trump accepted Putin’s denial.

The charge was immediately denied by a senior Trump administration official, but the turnabout signaled that any diplomatic engagement between the two countries would be complicated and fraught.

Aboard Air Force One as he kicked off his five-country, 13-day trip throughout Asia, Trump told reporters that he “expected” to meet with Putin on the visit because the United States hopes to enlist Russia in the fight against North Korea.

“We want Putin’s help on North Korea,” he said.

The first half of Trump’s trip through Asia has primarily focused on how to deal with the rogue nation. Trump gave a direct and bellicose speech in South Korea about Pyongyang, at one point speaking directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned,” he said. “It is a hell that no person deserves.”

Trump will continue to focus on North Korea in Vietnam, senior White House officials tell CNN, but his time at the summit will primarily focus on free trade.

“The President’s engagements at APEC will reinforce the US commitment to an equitable, sustainable and rules-based international economic system based on market principles,” one official said.

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