Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images From left: Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden
The historic and highly-anticipated first meeting between Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin got off to a hectic start on Wednesday, as reporters shouted questions at the men during a joint appearance in Geneva ahead of their scheduled discussion, making it difficult for the world leaders to hear one another or other officials in the room.
The White House soon pushed back on reports that Biden, 78, nodded affirmatively when asked by NBC reporter Elyse Perlmutter whether he trusted Putin, 68.
"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," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. "He wasn't responding to any question or anything other than the chaos."
White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield also attributed Biden's nod to the "chaos" of the moment, writing on Twitter: "@POTUS was very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally. He said just two days ago in his presser: 'verify, then trust.' "
As the White House pool of reporters with Biden reported, the noise in the room made it difficult to hear the U.S. president, who offered a few remarks as the two men were being photographed seated next to one another.
Putin's comments were more audible, the pool noted.
"I think it's always better to meet face to face," Biden said, CNN reported, and seemed to attempt to ask a question of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, though it's unclear whether Blinken could hear him.
"The media scuffle was the most chaotic your pooler has seen at a presidential event in nine years," one White House reporter wrote in a pool report for the larger U.S. media.
DENIS BALIBOUSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images Joe Biden (left), Vladimir Putin
The reporter detailed how "journalists pushed and shoved, yelling at each other to move but no one did" and "after just a minute or two, Russian security pulled the red rope separating the media from the leaders back to try to keep them away from the presidents."
"Russian security yelled at journalists to get out and began pushing journalists. Journalists and White House officials screamed back that the Russian security should stop touching us," the reporter wrote in the pool report. "Your pooler was pushed multiple times, nearly to the ground, as many poolers tripped over the red rope, which was now almost to the ground."
Biden and Putin subsequently held a private summit before each departed for individual - rather than joint - press conferences, the White House said.
The meeting between Biden and Putin comes three years after former President Donald Trump's now-notorious joint 2018 press conference with the Russian leader in Helsinki, Finland.
Fiona Hill, who previously served as Trump's top Russia adviser, reflected on that meeting - which she called a "terrible spectacle" - in an interview with CNN's Don Lemon on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters at the time, Trump, 75, cast doubt on the U.S. government's assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election. He instead sided with Putin, in a highly unusual break with his own officials.
"My people came to me - Dan Coats came to me, some others - they said they think it's Russia," Trump said, referencing the former director of national intelligence. "I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
Trump's remarks in that press conference became so alarming, Hill said, that she considered faking an emergency just to put a stop to it.
"I just thought, let's cut this off and try to end it. I couldn't come up with anything that just wouldn't add to the terrible spectacle," Hill said.
The conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election to support Trump was broadly supported by U.S. intelligence, though Russia has denied it. The FBI's investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the election ultimately spawned some 199 criminal charges, 37 indictments or guilty pleas and five prison sentences.
Robert Mueller, who led the investigation, said he did not find collusion between Russia and Trump's orbit, though he documented multiple links between them.
Trump was often effusive in his praise and admiration of the Russian autocrat while in office, calling Putin "very smart," and saying he "has very strong control over a country."
In response to scrutiny about that affinity, Trump often argued that the U.S. needed to take a different approach with Russia than past presidents.
Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images Vladimir Putin (left), Joe Biden
The relationship between Trump and Putin bears little similarity to that of Biden and Putin.
In an interview with ABC News that aired in March, the current president professed that he believes Putin is a "killer," and that he told him as much privately.
"He had a long talk, he and I," Biden told George Stephanopoulos. "I know him relatively well. And the conversation started off - I said, 'I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared.' "
Asked by Stephanopoulos whether he had once told Putin that he "does not have a soul," as had been previously reported, Biden confirmed that he had.
"I wasn't being a wise guy. I was alone with him in his office, that's how it came about," Biden said. "It was when President Bush had said, 'I've looked in his eyes and saw his soul.' I said, 'I looked in your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul.' He looked back and he said, 'We understand each other.' "
In an interview with NBC this week, Putin offered his own take on the two American presidents, calling Trump "a colorful individual," who "didn't come from the U.S. establishment."
"President Biden, of course, is radically different from Trump because President Biden is a career man," Putin added. "He has spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics."
Despite the strained relationship and as is customary at meetings between heads-of-state, Biden gifted the Russian president a crystal sculpture of an American bison - meant as a representation of "strength, unity, resilience" - and a pair of custom-made Aviator sunglasses (a personal favorite of the president's), according to a White House statement.
The White House added that the bison sculpture was presented on a cherry wood base, a reference to America's first president, George Washington, "with a custom engraved inscription plaque commemorating the meeting between President Biden and President Putin."