Donald Trump said he believes Vladimir Putin’s repeated denials of having meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election were sincere, and that only "haters and fools” can’t see the benefits of a good relationship with Russia.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” the U.S. president said Saturday after meeting the Russian leader briefly on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.
“I think he is very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth. Don’t forget. All he said was he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi. “You can only ask so many times.”
Trump instead called the accusations about Russia, which have triggered a special counsel investigation and several Congressional probes, “an artificial Democratic hit job” that make it harder to resolve diplomatic issues.
“When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics – bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!” he later wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s comments are likely to spur more questions about his relationship with Putin when he takes part in a press conference Sunday in Hanoi.
Trump dismissed the conclusions of multiple U.S. intelligence officials that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election in an effort to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help him win, saying “political hacks” led some of those agencies. Trump called James Comey, whom he fired as FBI director in May, a “liar” and a “leaker.”
Current and former U.S. officials and lawmakers reacted on Saturday.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 intelligence community assessment” that found interference by Russia, the Hill newspaper reported, citing a statement from an agency official it didn’t identify. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” the paper quoted the official as saying.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” Senator John McCain said in a statement.
The Arizona Republican, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added that there’s “no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous Assad regime,” a reference to the joint Trump-Putin statement issued Saturday about a political reconciliation in Syria. “Putin does not have America’s interests at heart.”
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said in a Twitter message that Trump “believes a KGB agent but not his own CIA? Not good.”
“Putin is trained in deception. The KGB (FSB/SVR) are pros at it. That our president doesn’t understand this basic fact is frightening,” said McFaul, now a political science professor at Stanford University.
Trump’s comments also drew a swift response from Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Today, President Trump said he would accept Putin’s denials of Russian meddling in our election, over the solid evidence of our own intelligence agencies,” Schiff said in an emailed statement. “He lamented that even raising the issue was insulting to Putin.”
“The president fools no one,” Schiff said. “He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail.”
At the APEC meeting Putin urged his U.S. counterpart to find time for a formal meeting. Trump told reporters of Putin’s suggestion, “We’ll have a meeting. We have the potential to have a very good relationship.” He offered no specific timetable.
“We can save many, many, many lives by making a deal with Russia having to do with Syria, and then ultimately getting Syria solved and getting Ukraine solved,” Trump said, referring to ongoing conflicts in those countries.
“This artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way,” Trump said. “It gets in the way. And that’s a shame because people will die because of it.”
Putin said he has a “good rapport” with Trump.
“It’s important that we find an opportunity, with our teams, to sit down at the level of presidents and talk through our complex relations,” Putin said in Danang, Vietnam. “Our relations are still in crisis. Russia is ready to turn the page and move on.”
Despite Trump’s campaign pledge to improve battered relations, ties between the two Cold War foes have become more tense during his first year in office after the U.S. tightened sanctions in response to alleged Russian election interference. Russia responded with U.S. diplomatic expulsions and the sides have since struggled to make progress on most issues.
In his APEC press conference, Putin dismissed the accusations of election meddling as “political infighting” in the U.S.
Following their brief talks in Vietnam, Putin and Trump issued a joint statement in which they agreed to support a political reconciliation in Syria, while maintaining the existing two-nation communication channels used to fight Islamic State.
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