HELSINKI -- President Donald Trump cast doubt on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying after his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday that the autocrat gave him a "very powerful" denial.
After Putin said his government played no role in trying to sabotage the U.S. election, Trump offered no push-back and went on to condemn the Justice Department's investigation of Russian interference as "a disaster for our country."
Trump's meeting with Putin was his first time sharing the international stage with a man he has described as an important U.S. competitor but whom he has also praised as a strong, effective leader.
Concluding their first formal one-on-one summit Monday, Trump said his message regarding the Russian interference "was a message best delivered in person" during the meeting, in which the two leaders "spent a great deal of time" discussing the Kremlin's alleged elections interference. Putin insisted publicly that the "Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs," and Trump declined to dispute his assertions, instead saying that Putin "has an interesting idea" about the issue of interference.
Trump addressed Russian meddling in the election as he stood next to Putin at a joint news conference after their talks in the Finnish capital ended. Of their private conversation in Helsinki about the interference, Trump said, "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
"He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be," Trump said.
When asked directly whether he believed Putin or his own intelligence agencies, Trump said there were "two thoughts" on the matter and then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee and asking about the fate of emails missing from the server of Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival.
"Where are those servers?" Trump said. "Where are Hillary Clinton's emails?"
Trump also insisted that "there was no collusion" between his campaign and Moscow. "I didn't know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign."
Trump said he holds "both countries responsible" for the frayed relations between the two nations and criticized special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Putin later confirmed that he did want Trump to win in 2016, "because he talked about normalizing relations" between Russia and the United States. "Isn't it natural to feel sympathy to a person who wanted to develop relations with our country? It's normal."
Yet he did not answer directly when pressed on whether the Russian government had compromising information on Trump or his family members, dismissing it by saying that "it's hard to imagine greater nonsense."
In a Fox News Channel interview after the summit, Putin pronounced the meetings "the beginning of the path" back from the West's past efforts to isolate Russia. "I think you see for yourself that these efforts failed, and they were never bound to succeed," he said.
In the interview with Chris Wallace, Putin deflected questions about whether Russian hackers had tried to influence the election.
"Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of Americans?" Putin said.
He added: "The idea was about hacking an email account of a Democratic candidate. Was it some rigging of facts? Was it some forgery of facts? That's the important thing that I am trying to -- point that I'm trying to make. Was this -- any false information planted? No. It wasn't."
PUTIN INVITES PROBERS
During their two-hour, one-on-one talks earlier Monday, in which the leaders were accompanied only by interpreters, Trump and Putin discussed their disagreements "at length," Trump said. He added: "Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed, as of about four hours ago."
The summit began hours after Trump, in a series of tweets, blamed his own country, rather than Russia, for the hostilities between the two nations.
Speaking first at the news conference, Putin said the talks took place "in a frank and businesslike atmosphere," adding: "I think we can call it a success." He said that although bilateral relations have been "going through a complicated stage," there was "no solid reason" for that. "The Cold War is a thing of the past," he said.
He added later that Trump "mentioned the so-called interference of Russia in the American election" in 2016. Putin again denied any involvement by the Russian state and said any evidence of interference can be analyzed through a joint working group on cybersecurity.
Putin said later in response to a question that U.S. investigators might go to Russia to participate in the questioning of suspects after a dozen Russian intelligence officers were indicted in the United States on charges of election interference.
Elaborating, Putin said representatives of the Mueller probe could be present at interrogations of suspects in Russia -- as long as Russians would be able to do the same at the questioning of U.S. intelligence agents that Moscow suspects of carrying out crimes on Russian soil.
Specifically, Putin said he would expect the U.S. to cooperate in the Russian probe against William Browder, a British investor charged with financial crimes in Russia. Browder, an outspoken Putin critic, was a driving force behind a U.S. law targeting Russian officials over human-rights abuses.
"Let the Mueller commission send us a request, and we will do the work necessary to respond," Putin said. "We can expand this cooperation -- but we will then also expect from the U.S. side access to people who we believe are members of the intelligence agencies."
Trump hailed the idea as an "incredible offer."
The two presidents said they would work together on nuclear arms control, although neither mentioned a concrete set of actions on forging a new treaty to replace the New START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021, or addressing what U.S. officials have said are Russian violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The two also discussed working together on Syria, where Russia is backing the government of Bashar Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people in a civil war that has raged for nearly eight years, and where the United States wants Putin to curtail Iran's influence.
In response to questions, Trump subsequently said that both countries were to blame for the deterioration of relations. "I do feel that we have both made some mistakes," he said. He added that "there was no collusion" between his campaign and Russia, and he lamented that the special counsel's investigation into the matter has had an impact on U.S.-Russian relations.
"I think the probe has been a disaster for our country," he said. "It's ridiculous what's going on with the probe."
The reaction in the U.S. to the news conference was immediate and visceral, among fellow Republicans as well as usual Trump critics.
As he flew home to Washington aboard Air Force One, Trump tried to clarify his position via tweet, saying: "As I said today and many times before, 'I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.' However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past - as the world's two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!"
In an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity that aired later Monday, Trump said "it's a shame" that he and Putin were being asked questions about the Russia probe while they were trying to discuss issues like Syria and nuclear proliferation. "We've had a phony witch hunt deal drive us apart," he said.
Seated alongside Putin to deliver opening remarks before reporters at the start of the summit, Trump congratulated Russia on the World Cup soccer tournament, which concluded Sunday, then noted that the United States and Russia have "not been getting along too well for the last number of years." He said he hoped that would change and that "I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship."
"Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing," Trump said, as Putin slouched in his chair. Trump added that the "world wants to see us getting along."
Putin, who spoke before Trump made his opening remarks, said to the U.S. president: "Of course, the time has come that we speak extensively about our bilateral relations and various problem points around the world. There are enough of them that we ought to pay attention to them."
The meeting began later than originally planned, after Putin arrived in Helsinki well behind schedule, keeping Trump waiting. The one-on-one meeting lasted about two hours, longer than anticipated. It was initially scheduled to take 90 minutes.
The two leaders then went into an expanded meeting that included top aides. At the start of it, Trump, responding to a shouted question from a reporter, said: "I think it's a good start. Very, very good start for everybody."
Although most U.S. officials argue that Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, use of a nerve agent on British soil and aggression in Ukraine and Syria have worsened relations, Trump instead faulted "U.S. foolishness and stupidity" in tweets Monday morning, as well as the expansive Justice Department investigation into Russia's election intrusion.
"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 Monday morning as he prepared for his meeting with Putin.
Trump's comments Monday were in sync with the argument Putin and his government have long made, which is that the policies of President Barack Obama's administration -- as well as the investigation into election interference, which Putin repeatedly has denied -- inflamed tensions between the two nuclear superpowers.
Russia's Foreign Ministry recirculated the comment, which appeared to absolve Moscow of the other irritants in the relationship -- including the election hacking, the annexation of Crimea, its backing for rebels in Ukraine and for the regime in Syria, and its suspected use of a nerve agent to poison people in Britain -- chiming in, "We agree."
In another Monday morning tweet, Trump sought to pin blame for the matter on Obama.
"President Obama thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election, so when he was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn't happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it. When I won it became a big deal and the Rigged Witch Hunt headed by Strzok!" Trump wrote, referring first to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Clinton and then FBI agent Peter Strzok, who testified before Congress in a combative hearing last week.
Information for this article was contributed by Philip Rucker, Anton Troianovski and Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post; by Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin, Vladimir Isachenkov, Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville of The Associated Press; and by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
A Section on 07/17/2018
Print Headline: Trump: Putin's denial strong; Doubt cast on Russian interference