With Vladimir Putin by his side, Donald Trump hails summit while challenging US intelligence findings
Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denial of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, putting him at odds with his own agencies and national security adviser
US President Donald Trump declared Monday night that all-time low relations between the United States and Russia had significantly improved after he held two hours of closed-door talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
“Our relationship has never been worse, but that changed about four hours ago,” Trump declared at a press conference after the meeting at the presidential palace.
Putin, standing next to Trump, acknowledged that the relationship between their two countries was “complicated” but that they had covered a range of issues, from deploying weapons in space to ending the crisis in war-torn Syria.
Trump also appeared to accept Putin’s denial of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.
“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said as he stood next to the Russian leader at a joint news conference. “He just said it’s not Russia. Let me say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
On Friday, the US Justice Department laid out details of what it said was a far-reaching hacking scheme in an indictment of 12 Russian agents whom it accused of trying to disrupt the election. Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s denials puts him at odds, not only with his US intelligence agencies and lawmakers from both parties, but also his own national security adviser, John Bolton, who said Sunday that after seeing the indictments, he found it “hard to believe” that Putin was unaware of election interference.
Trump also called special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian election meddling a “disaster”, again questioned whether Russia interfered in the election and suggested that he equally trusted his national intelligence director and Putin – all as he stood next to the Russian leader.
In a remarkable news conference after the summit meeting, both leaders addressed the US intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin meddled in the election and the investigation into the interference, led by Mueller, that has resulted in charges against several Russians.
The two leaders found themselves largely in agreement.
“The probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said after he was asked whether he holds Russia accountable at all for poor relations with the US. “It’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated.”
“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,” he continued. “I have confidence in both parties.”
Putin said that Trump had asked him about 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted in Mueller’s investigation on Friday and that he would “look into it.” He again denied Kremlin interference in the election but offered to allow Mueller to observe interrogations of the agents by Russian authorities.
He said he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, but left unanswered a question about whether he’d done anything to help the then-candidate.
Trump was swiftly rebuked both by Democrats and some Republican members of Congress who have been critical of him in the past.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska blasted Trump’s statement blaming both sides for problems in the US-Russia relationship as “bizarre and flat-out wrong.”
“America wants a good relationship with the Russian people, but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression,” he said in a statement.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said on Twitter: “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.”
At the press conferece, Putin continued to deny Russian meddling: “Once again, President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia with the American elections. I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs, including election process.”
Trump took the opportunity to insist again that there had been no collusion between his campaign team and the Russians.
Putin also raised concern about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.
“Our two countries, frankly, we have not been getting along well,” Trump said as he and Putin sat down.
“I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90 per cent of the nuclear, and that’s not a good thing. That’s a bad thing.”
Trump added that he hoped for an “extraordinary relationship”.
“We have a lot of good things to talk about, and things to talk about,” Trump said. “We have discussions on everything from trade to military to missiles to nuclear to China.”
The Russian leader said little, offering a more casual, almost indifferent demeanour as Trump spoke.
“It is now time to talk in depth about our bilateral ties and sore points in the world,” said Putin. “There are enough of those that we need to pay attention to.”
The two leaders met with only interpreters in the room.
Putin, as he often has in meetings with other foreign leaders, arrived 45 minutes late, his plane touching down at the time when his first meeting with Trump was originally expected to begin.
Trump seemed to return the favour by waiting until Putin arrived at the palace before leaving his hotel.
The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears among Nato members that Moscow’s perceived aggression may go unchallenged.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning, blaming “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
Activists used Monday’s summit to hold two days of high-profile protests in the Finnish capital.
Abortion-rights activists dressed up on Monday in bulging bellies and Trump masks. Anti-fascist protesters carried signs with expletive-laden insults. Free traders, anti-war Ukrainians, environmentalists and rainbow flag-waving gay rights supporters all vied for attention from the world’s media.
Some stayed at barriers erected by police to try to register their grievance as the world leaders sped by in their armour-plated vehicles to the presidential palace. Others marched by local landmarks, far away from the meeting but in clear view of curious residents and tourists.
At the city’s Senate Square, about 20 male “pregnant Trumps” and 20 women wearing pink gags railed against a Trump order reinstating what critics call a “global gag rule” that bans providing federal money to international family planning groups that perform abortions or provide information about them.
Another march that drew hundreds of people was a mishmash of messages – from supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to people shouting “Fascists go home!”
“I don’t think the two people meeting today are going to care whether we are here or not, frankly,” said Helsinki protesters Tina Aspiala, 43. “It’s more of a global solidarity against a lot of things that are messed up, and I think that that’s why it’s worth coming out.”
Trump and his aides have repeatedly tried to lower expectations about what the summit will achieve.
He told CBS News he did not “expect anything” from Putin, while his national security adviser said the US wasn’t looking for any “concrete deliverables”. Trump told reporters during breakfast on Monday with Finland’s president that he thought the summit would go “fine”.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Reuters