Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday. Photograph: TASS / Barcroft Images
Donald Trump began his highly anticipated first meeting with Vladimir Putinsince his election with a direct warning to stop interfering in American elections, the US secretary of state said on Friday.
Reports that Russia intervened to tip the election in Trump’s favour have dogged the US president since last year. But when the two men met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Putin denied any involvement, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told reporters.
The day was dominated, however, by the sheer drama, unpredictability and unexpected duration of an encounter that lasted two hours and 16 minutes – far longer than expected.
Tillerson said that halfway through the meeting, Melania Trump entered the room to remind her husband of his schedule, but the meeting went on for another hour.
The two leaders gingerly attempted to open a new chapter of bilateral relations with the announcement of a joint approach in Syria – but the meeting was overshadowed by questions over Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favour.
US Democrats had demanded Trump discuss Russian cyber interference with Putin.
Tillerson said the two men had “a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject” and said that the US was demanding a future commitment from Russiathat it would not interfere in American democracy.
“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 said.
Russia’s foreign minister told reporters that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of involvement. “President Trump said that he had heard the clear statements from President Putin about this being untrue, that the Russian leadership did not interfere in the election, and that he accepts these statements,” said Sergey Lavrov.
Tillerson also suggested that the two sides might never come to a resolution – suggesting that both leaders hoped to put the matter behind them.
The secretary of state said the meeting was “rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point”.
Apart from the two presidents, the only other people present were Tillerson, Lavrov and two interpreters. “There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two,” Tillerson said. “There was not a lot of relitigating things from the past.”
Trump’s comments to Putin marked a shift: as recently as Thursday, the US president again challenged the conclusion of the US intelligence community, saying that “nobody really knows” who was behind efforts to influence the election result.
A fire burns amid anti-G20 protests on Friday in Hamburg, Germany. Photograph: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
But his efforts to move past the issue did not satisfy political opponents at home.
Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, said: “Trump played into Putin’s hand yet again by suggesting that we should just move on from last year’s election hacks. After Trump has denied that Russia was behind the hacks for nearly a year, it is not surprising that Putin took the same position today.
Watson said the US president had spent months “going out of his way to give cover” to Putin. “Trump is not just giving Putin a pass on last year’s attack on our democracy, but inviting him to do it again,” she said.
The focus on the Trump-Putin meeting angered the host country, Germany, which had been preparing its own elaborate agenda for the G20 for over a year.
The day saw scraps between the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Trump over climate change, while the EU threatened immediate retaliatory sanctions against the US if it went ahead with plans to slap tariffs on steel imports.
Police forces around Germany dispatched reinforcements to help 15,000 officers already deployed to Hamburg for the summit as violence escalated. A police spokesman said that a group of about 60 masked protesters attacked three police vehicles with molotov cocktails, and that a flare fired at a police helicopter only narrowly missed its target.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, warned that the rise of nationalism could lead to war, and offered his US counterpart a lesson on trade in a tense meeting, sources have revealed.
After Trump had described his “America first” approach to trade , Macron reportedly took out his mobile phone in order to illustrate his thoughts on the issue.
The French president argued that if his phone was made in the US, that would amount to a trade deficit in France, but the fact that America had imported parts to build the device from China would give it a deficit elsewhere.
A diplomatic source said Macron’s aim during the working lunch was to stress that trade was not simply a two-way street.
Although the drama of the confrontation over Putin’s interference in the US elections was striking, an announcement about a joint approach on Syria – starting with a ceasefire in the south-west of the country – may have greater long-term significance.
Innumerable ceasefires have been announced and broken down in Syria before, but the latest announcement may be seen as a precursor to a national ceasefire and even the US endorsement of a joint Russian-Turkish plan for “de-escalation zones” in the areas of greatest conflict between the Assad regime and the rebels.
The US has been increasingly explicit that it no longer expects that Assad must stand aside as part of a political settlement, but there is no still agreement on the future political shape of Syria if and when Islamic State is defeated. The ceasefire could create the space for a discussion about Syria’s future, including Putin’s long-sought joint approach to defeating extremist rebel groups.
The new south-west ceasefire in Syria, endorsed by Jordan and Israel, will start on Sunday and is indefinite.
US officials said the possible start of a fruitful Trump-Putin relationship, founded on a joint solution in Syria, did not mean longstanding tensions had evaporated over a range of other critical issues such as North Korea, protectionism, cybersecurity and Ukraine.
Putin urged Trump to calm his rhetoric over North Korea’s apparent firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching US soil.
Putin said the “North Korean nuclear program is a very acute problem. We must not lose our self-command; we need to act pragmatically and very carefully.” But Tillerson said that if it a peaceful pressure campaign did not work, there were few options left.
Forming an alliance with the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, Putin argued the US needed to keep its focus on further sanctions and dialogue, rather than military measures.
China is reluctant to see sanctions extended to the point where energy supplies to North Korea are cut off, a move that could spark the mass movement of refugees across its border.
Tillerson described US progress on sanctions alongside China as uneven. He said the Chinese took action and then paused.
Initial briefings suggested that Trump ceded little ground to Putin on the so-called frozen conflict in Ukraine, insisting economic sanctions would continue until Russia did more to comply with the Minsk accords. Putin has countered that the depth of sanctions mean they are turning into a form of undisclosed protectionism by the US.
But in a move welcomed by the Ukrainian government, Trump has appointed an experienced special envoy, a move that will be seen to show the administration is raising its interest in the country’s plight.