Before their meeting on Wednesday, the two leaders shook hands before going inside for the closed-door talks. During a scrum with media outlets and amid heavy security, a reporter asked Biden about whether he trusts Putin, during which he appeared to nod up and down.
“Biden looked at her and nodded in the affirmative,” according to a White House pool reporter.
But White House officials later said that he wasn’t nodding in agreement to the question.
“It was a chaotic scrum with reporters shouting over each other. President Biden was very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told reporters on Wednesday.
And White House press secretary Jen Psaki also pushed back on the claim Biden nodded in the affirmative to the question.
“During a chaotic free for all with members of the press shouting questions over each other, the President gave a general head nod in the direction of the media. He wasn’t responding to any question or anything other than the chaos,” Psaki said of the incident.
The two leaders issued several comments before their hour-long meeting.
“Mr. President, I’d like to thank you for your initiative to meet today,” Putin said while sitting next to Biden on Wednesday. “U.S. and Russian relations have a lot of issues accumulated that require the highest level meeting,” he added.
Biden, meanwhile, said that the United States is seeking a “predictable and rational” relationship with Moscow, making reference to the United States and Russia being “two great powers.”
“I think it’s always better to meet face to face, try to determine where we have mutual interest, cooperate,” the president also remarked.
Both leaders, in the lead-up to their summit, noted that relations between the two nations are at a low point. Federal officials have said that they believe Russian-based ransomware hackers not linked to the Kremlin targeted key infrastructure and businesses inside the United States in recent weeks, including the 5,500-mile-long Colonial Pipeline last month and JBS Foods several weeks ago.
The FBI also claimed that Moscow was behind the sweeping cybersecurity breach targeting SolarWinds software used by several agencies.
Other issues that are likely to be touched upon in the meeting include Russia’s massive troop buildup along its border with Ukraine’s Donbas region and its treatment of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who claims to have been poisoned by Putin.
Earlier this year, the United States authorized more sanctions targeting Russian financial institutions over the SolarWinds breach as well as alleged election interference during the 2020 election.
“The issue of state-sponsored cyberattacks of that scope and scale remains a matter of grave concern to the United States,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters earlier this month. “It will be a topic of conversation between the presidents.”
In an interview with NBC News last week, Putin denied Russia was involved in the cyberattacks or election interference.
“We have been accused of all kinds of things,” Putin said. “Election interference, cyberattacks, and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.”
Separately, Biden told reporters on Sunday that he won’t be holding a joint press conference alongside Putin—like former President Donald Trump did during their meeting in 2019—arguing that it would lead to rampant speculation in the press.
“I always found, and I don’t mean to suggest the press should not know, but this is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said.