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Trump passed his first test: the handshake with Putin

Now comes the hard part.

Trump and Putin shake hands before their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

In his highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit, President Donald Trump managed to avoid an optics catastrophe.

With a simple exchange of pleasantries and a cordial handshake, Trump and Putin began their bilateral meeting as if it were business as usual — no super-aggressive physical posturing, no awkward off-the-cuff remarks, no overly chummy chuckles. For Trump, that’s basically a win.

Analysts were closely watching how Trump would treat Putin at the start of their high-stakes conversation. After all, Putin is the leader who ordered Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election — most notably gaining access to voter rolls in 21 states. Meanwhile, Russia is threatening to shoot down US planes in Syria and continues to wage war on Ukraine, the bloodiest European war since the 1990s.

Russia watchers hoped Trump wouldn’t be overly friendly with Putin when they encountered each other. They recalled Trump’s meeting with former Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, where the two were seen laughing in the Oval Office. “The last thing the president should do is smile when he meets Putin,” Steven Pifer, a former US diplomat in Moscow, told Newsweek.

Trump didn’t smile. Instead, he sat there alongside Putin, gave his opening remarks, and shook the Russian leader’s hand. “It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump said at the end of his statement.

The only hiccup was a brief greeting between the two shortly before the meeting during which Trump shook Putin’s hand and then later patted him on the back.

Still, the big moment was how Trump would act before the one-on-one conversation. Trump seemed to pass that test, clearing his own low bar.

The optics crisis was averted. Now comes the hard part.

Of course, the real point of the meeting is for Trump and Putin to hash out important issues facing the two countries. Most notably, election meddling, US sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and the war in Syria.

And it seems like Putin came into the meeting much more prepared than Trump. Trump only got a few pages with short talking points to get ready for the encounter. Putin famously comes very ready. As an example, my Vox colleague Yochi Dreazen describes how Putin acted during a meeting with George W. Bush.

A senior member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet once told me a revealing story about Vladimir Putin. Each meeting, the official said, began the same way: Putin would reach into his suit jacket pocket, remove notecards listing perceived American sins against Russia, and read them one by one. Only then would the substantive discussions begin.

It remains to be seen how Trump will handle himself in the private one-on-one meeting. But for now, the president and his team will likely consider part one of the Putin encounter — the optics — a success.