President Donald Trump refused to condemn Russian state interference in the 2016 US election identified by US intelligence, saying Vladimir Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial” during a summit in Helsinki.
Standing next to the Russian president after their first summit, Mr Trump called the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations of Russian meddling a “disaster for our country”. He also harshly criticised the way the FBI is handling the probe.
Mr Trump’s willingness to disparage US law enforcement and intelligence agencies and defend Mr Putin came just days after Mr Mueller charged 12 Russian spies with running an elaborate hacking campaign to undermine Mr Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
The US president’s comments also appeared to directly contradict his own national security aides, including his handpicked director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. Last week, Mr Coats sounded the alarm over Russian cyber attacks, saying the US was “one click away” from a repeat of the 2016 intrusions.
No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Coats said later in a statement: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
In Congress, Mr Trump’s comments triggered denunciations from Democrats and some Republicans who have been critical of Mr Trump. John Brennan, CIA head under President Barack Obama, said they were “nothing short of treasonous”.
John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator, said Mr Trump’s performance in Helsinki showed that the summit had been a “tragic mistake”.
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naïveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” Mr McCain said. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Senior Russian politicians hailed the summit as a great success. “I will honestly say that for me this meeting exceeded my expectations,” said Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament. “The meeting was really wonderful.”
Mr Putin, a former intelligence officer, showed no emotion during Mr Trump’s comments. He said he had repeatedly told Mr Trump “the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in US internal affairs”.
But Mr Putin acknowledged he had supported Mr Trump’s election in 2016, saying he preferred the New York property developer over Mrs Clinton “because he talked of bringing the Russia-US relationship back to normal”.
Asked at the press conference if the Kremlin had compromising material on Mr Trump or his family, Mr Putin did not deny it directly, saying only that the press should “disregard this issue”.
“I heard rumours that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr Trump when he visited Moscow,” Mr Putin said. “When he visited back then, I didn’t know he was there . . . You think we try to collect kompromat on every single businessman? It’s hard to image a bigger nonsense.”
Mr Trump then said: “If they had it, it would have been out long ago.”
Mr Trump sought to portray the summit as the end of years of wrong-headed US policy towards the Kremlin, saying Mr Obama and the Mueller probe had improperly damaged bilateral ties.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr Trump said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”
Heather Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr Trump had betrayed the US intelligence community.
“July 16, 2018, will be remembered as a very dark day in the history of the US when an American president so openly betrays American national security, and specifically the brave men and women who defend it, by appeasing an adversary,” said Ms Conley.
Asked if the Kremlin — which has been criticised in the West for destabilising Ukraine, allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy in the UK and propping up the murderous regime in Syria— bore any responsibility for the dismal state of relations between the two countries, Mr Trump said blame lay on all sides.
“I think we have all been foolish,” he said. “We have both made some mistakes.”
Mr Trump came to Helsinki after a tumultuous few days in Europe where he slammed members of Nato at a summit in Brussels, the most divisive in the 69-year history of the transatlantic alliance.
Mr Trump also criticised Theresa May, UK prime minister, in an interview the day before their meeting. And he described the EU as “a foe” on Sunday, just as he was about to fly to Helsinki for his meeting with Mr Putin.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the “most striking” thing about Mr Trump’s performance was his refusal to back the findings of his own intelligence agencies. He said the performance also stood in stark contrast with the way Mr Trump behaved at Nato and in the UK, and in June when he attacked members of the G7 at a summit in Canada.
“It was hard not to be struck by the contrast between the chumminess of the Trump-Putin interaction and the frost and friction we have recently witnessed between Trump and America’s allies in Quebec, Nato, and the UK,” said Mr Haass.
While dismissing the recent indictment against Russian intelligence agents, Mr Putin encouraged Mr Mueller to send an extradition request, adding US investigators were welcome in Moscow to work alongside Russian intelligence officers, but that he expected US co-operation in exchange.
“I was an intelligence officer myself. And I do know how dossiers are made up,” said Mr Putin, a former colonel in the KGB. “Can you name one definite fact that proves collusion? This is nonsense.”
The start of the meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Trump was delayed because the Russian leader arrived 30 minutes later than scheduled in Helsinki. Mr Putin flew from Moscow on Monday after having attended the World Cup final in the Russian capital on Sunday evening.
Mr Putin, who has now met with three different US presidents, said that the “frank and business-like” talks had been “very fruitful”.
He said the men had discussed a potential extension of the existing agreement on reducing nuclear warheads and continued military co-operation in Syria. He said they disagreed on whether Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was illegal.
“We must restore an acceptable level of trust and go back to the previous level of interaction on all major issues . . . We bear special responsibility for international stability,” Mr Putin said.
During the press conference, Mr Putin handed Mr Trump a football, saying “the ball is in your court”, partly a reference to the US hosting the World Cup in 2026. US Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, who criticised Mr Trump’s performance in Helsinki, warned him to be careful with the ball.
“If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House,” Mr Graham said.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington
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