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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit. Image Credit: Reuters

OSAKA, Japan: President Trump issued a warning of sorts to Russian President Vladimir Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election when the two met here Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 conference.

But the exchange was less of a stern rebuke than a sarcastic joke among friends.

After a reporter asked whether he was going to issue such a warning to Putin, Trump took the opportunity before the assembled cameras to leave no doubt that he had followed through.

“Yes, of course I will,” Trump responded before turning somewhat toward Putin.

“Don’t meddle in the election,” Trump said, smiling and holding up a finger toward Putin. “Don’t meddle in the election.”

Putin did not respond verbally, but he did laugh.

What remained seriously in doubt was the president’s sincerity, given his playful demeanour with Putin — he also winked at him in the meeting room — and his pattern of minimising matters of Russia’s involvement in American politics.

“Russia’s proven and blatant interference in our elections in 2016 is no laughing matter,” said Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia under President Obama. “Yet again, President Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t take the security of our elections seriously.”

Trump has repeatedly scoffed at the determination, first by US intelligence officials and then by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in order to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

It has been nearly a year since Trump’s first summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, where the president openly accepted the Russian leader’s denial of having meddled in the US election and questioned his own government’s conclusions to the contrary.

None of Trump’s nine bilateral meetings over two days on the sidelines of the G-20 conference here were more eagerly anticipated or laden with subtext than this one.

It also comes just more than a month since Mueller issued the findings of his 22-month investigation, which determined that Russia indeed sought to undermine Clinton in 2016 and that Trump, in at least 10 instances, attempted to undermine the investigation.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed Mueller’s findings, calling his investigation a “witch hunt” and railing against Democrats who have called Mueller to testify before Congress next month and are openly considering impeachment proceedings.

Putin has also complained that the US political climate has prevented the two nations from working together more closely.

The two leaders were scheduled to meet at the previous G-20 in Buenos Aires in December, but Trump cancelled the meeting after Russia seized three Ukrainian ships and imprisoned 23 Ukrainian sailors, who all remain in Russian custody.

In his other comments to reporters before the press was ushered out of the room, Trump called the meeting “a great honour” and said he and Putin would be discussing “trade, some disarmament” and “protectionism.”

“A lot of very positive things are going to come out of the relationship,” Trump said.

Trump’s sarcastic joke to Putin about election meddling was neither his first nor his last attempt to infuse some levity into this confab of world leaders representing the world’s largest economies at a time of growing uncertainty.

He tweeted Wednesday as he headed to Osaka — and a G-20 convened amid rising tensions between the US and Iran and ongoing trade wars — that he was “off to save the free world.”

On Friday, speaking to reporters at the outset of his final meeting of the day with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump weighed in again on the two-night Democratic primary debate back home.

As he spoke about his meeting with Putin and the possibility of Russian troops withdrawing from Venezuela, Trump segued abruptly from the subject of that nation’s socialist government to the Democratic primary field and a debate that took place during his meetings here and at times focused on questions of socialism and government’s role in health care and higher education.

“I heard a rumour that the Democrats are going to change their name from the Democratic Party to the socialist party,” Trump said, eliciting laughs from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials seated nearby.

During the same back-and-forth with reporters, Trump also predicted that Saturday’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping would be “productive,” no matter what happens.

“It’ll be a very exciting day for a lot of people, including the world,” Trump said.

Unlike the Helsinki summit, where Trump and Putin met alone for more than two hours with only interpreters present, several aides to both leaders were in Friday’s meeting.

A White House readout of the meeting released afterward said that the two leaders “agreed that improved relations between the United States and Russia [were] in each countries’ mutual interest and the interest of the world” and listed several topics that were discussed.

Election interference was not included.