The summit kicked off with Trump saying he wanted good relations with Russia, after blaming Washington’s own past “foolishness and stupidity” for the countries’ hostile ties.
“I’ve been saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard over the years…that getting along with Russia is a good thing not a bad thing,” Trump said, seated next to Putin at the start of talks in an ornate presidential palace in neutral Finland.
Trump reached out to shake Putin‘s hand, before the media were ushered out. The two men were to meet alone apart from interpreters before a working lunch with aides. Trump said they would talk about a range of subjects, listing trade, the military, nuclear weapons and China.
WATCH: Donald Trump arrives for meeting with Vladimir Putin
Putin appeared to smirk as Trump ignored shouted questions about whether he would warn the Russian leader against meddling in the 2018 midterm elections.
But, at least in his public remarks at the outset, he mentioned none of the issues that have lately brought U.S.-Russian relations to the lowest point since the Cold War: Moscow’s annexation of territory from Ukraine, its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as well as Western accusations that it poisoned a spy in England and meddled in elections.
Instead, Trump saved his public criticism for his own country, tweeting before the summit: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The Russian foreign ministry “liked” his tweet.
The Kremlin has played down expectations. It said before the summit it did not expect much from the meeting but hoped it would be a “first step” to resolving a crisis in ties.
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“Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along.”
While Trump has been abroad since last week, the special prosecutor investigating allegations that Russia interfered to help him win the 2016 presidential election indicted 12 Russians on Friday for stealing Democratic Party documents.
Critics and Trump’s own advisers have urged Trump to use the summit to press Putin hard about “malign” activities.
“There are enough of them for us to start paying attention,” he said, sitting next to Trump.
— With files from the Associated Press