President Trump said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of interference in the 2016 election, declining to publicly denounce Putin’s regime despite warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies.
He made the comments at a joint press conference with Putin, after they sat down for their first official one-on-one summit in Helsinki, Finland on Monday.
Asked by an Associated Press reporter whether he believes the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies or Putin when it came to the issue of Russian meddling, Trump said that he really didn’t “know a reason” why Russia would be the culprit. He also brought up the issue of why the FBI never took the Democratic National Committee server and what happened to 33,000 of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind hacking attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other organizations in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, but Trump has repeatedly questioned whether that is the case. On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officers on charges of conspiracy to hack the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Trump said that his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and others came to him and said that they “think it is Russia,” but “President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason it why it would be.” He said that he has “great confidence in my intelligence people,” but Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
When asked by a Reuters correspondent whether he holds Russia accountable for “anything in particular,” Trump responded, “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think that we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialog a long time ago…I think we are all to blame.”
After Mueller’s indictments, Senate Democrats called on Trump to cancel the summit or include other officials in the talks. But Trump and Putin met for about two hours with only their interpreters present.
Trump called the Mueller probe “a disaster for our country,” and said that it has kept the U.S. and Russia apart. “It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.”
Trump’s remarks drew criticism and even condemnation, even from some Republicans. On CNN, anchor Anderson Cooper called it “one of the most disgraceful performances” by a U.S. president in front of a Russian leader.
Trump, though, was steadfast in his belief that improved relations between the two countries will be beneficial. He said that the U.S. and Russia now “have a chance to do some great things,” such as working to stem nuclear proliferation.
Putin said that he did want Trump to win the 2016 election, but also again denied publicly that there was Russian interference in the election.
Some Republicans denounced Trump’s remarks. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been supportive of Trump on some key issues, wrote on Twitter that the press conference and summit was a “missed opportunity by President Trump to fold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections. This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that “the president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Earlier in the day, Trump continued to refer to Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
His focus is much different than that of Coats, who on Friday warned of further Russian cyberattacks and those of other foreign actors. He noted the warnings that preceded 9/11, when “the system is blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again.”
Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are scheduled to interview Trump afterward, landing sit-downs with the president post-summit. Hannity’s interview will air first as the first exclusive. Fox News’ Chris Wallace will interview Putin.