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Rep. Stewart: Trump-Putin meeting recalls 'almost a Cold War-era footing' between U.S., Russia

SALT LAKE CITY — The meeting Friday between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin is under so much scrutiny it recalls "almost a Cold War-era footing" between the two superpowers, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said.

"The tension is so high and these meetings are viewed as so critical, we try to find every tiny hint of meaning — you know, how they stood, what ties they were wearing, how long the handshake lasted," Stewart said.

Just as in the days of American presidents sitting down with their Soviet counterparts, Trump's two hours with Putin behind closed doors during the Group of 20 economic summit in Germany is being carefully dissected.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee leading one of the investigations into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and alleged ties to the Trump campaign, pointed to the increased tensions.

"It's interesting to me we're back in that kind of a day, almost a Cold War-era footing where we're looking for some kind of details or hints of how the relationship is," the 2nd District congressman said.

He said there's a need now "to have as trusting a relationship between our two countries as possible. And I think it starts with these two leaders sitting down with each other."

The meeting reportedly started with Trump confronting Putin about Russia's interference in last year's presidential election. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in the meeting, said Trump "pressed" Putin "on more than one occasion."

Evan McMullin, the independent presidential candidate who won more than 21 percent of the Utah vote to Republican Trump's 45.5 percent, suggested in a series of tweets Trump did not go far enough.

"Did President Trump promise consequences for 2016 or future meddling? Simply raising the issue without that is little more than theater," McMullin said in a tweet, warning if that's what Trump did, "he signaled weakness, if not consent, to Putin."

Stewart, however, said Trump had to at least bring it up, especially since "you have to have lived under a rock on the moon somewhere not to know that Russia tried to interfere with our election."

Putin will never concede what happened, he said, but it's good to "get it on the table just to have it out in the open that we know what they did and it's unacceptable and we're going to do everything we can to preclude that from happening in the future."

University of Utah political science professor Marjorie Castle, an expert in Russian politics, said it appears Trump and Putin "both got what they wanted" on the election interference issue.

She said it was a "show of strength" that Tillerson's counterpart in the meeting, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, told reporters at the international summit that Trump accepted Putin's assurances that Russia did not meddle in the election.

Castle said the agreement apparently reached by Trump and Putin to continue working on cybersecurity issues comes after what may be seen as "simply a scold" during the meeting about Russia's involvement.

More promising, she said, would have been plans to put together an agreement preventing Russia from any future interference in the domestic affairs of other countries as well as the United States.

During the meeting, which had been scheduled to last just 30 minutes, Trump and Putin also reportedly talked about Syria, North Korea and Ukraine, hot spots that have fueled the divide between the United States and Russia.

Castle said the meeting may have been stretched into two hours to appear more successful for both parties but it's Putin who comes out ahead for keeping the leader of the free world engaged for so long.

"The length of the meeting was even more of a win for Putin," she said. "Whether or not our president realizes it, the U.S. is the U.S. It is already the most powerful, most important country in the world."

Putin presides over a country that doesn't have the presence the Soviet Union did, Castle said, and so is focused on using a meeting with an American president to increase Russia's position on the world stage.

But Trump, she said, tends to emphasize more immediate domestic or even personal payoffs in his interactions with foreign leaders.

Stewart said he believes Trump held his own in the meeting.

"President Trump, if nothing else, does not lack for confidence, right? So I don't think he's going to be intimidated by Vladimir Putin," Stewart said. "I also feel like he's negotiating from a moral position. I mean, he believes we're in the right."