on Monday publicly questioned U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election while standing beside Russian leader
saying he “didn’t see any reason why” the finding would be true.
Mr. Trump said he and the Russian president “spent a great deal of time” discussing the matter during their four hours of talks on Monday, and said Mr. Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
Asked whom he believed—U.S. intelligence agencies or Mr. Putin—Mr. Trump said: “[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me. They said, they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia.”
He added: “I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
During the News conference, Mr. Trump also attacked his Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, describing the probe of whether his associates colluded with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election as a “disaster for our country” that has “kept us apart.” And he continued to blame the U.S., at least in part, for the poor state of relations with Moscow, saying the U.S. had been “foolish.”
Mr. Putin, asked whether he had wanted Mr. Trump to win the 2016 election and if he had directed officials in the Russian government to interfere in the election on his behalf, replied: “Yes I did. Yes I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” It was unclear if Mr. Putin heard the second part of the question.
Mr. Trump’s public skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings—which he has routinely expressed over the last 18 months—comes on the heels of Friday’s indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller against 12 Russian officers with hacking the computers of Democratic organizations and ensuring the pilfered information became public.
Mr. Putin said they discussed the possibility of inviting Mueller investigators to Russia to question the charged officers, but added that he would expect the U.S. to offer a reciprocal arrangement. Mr. Trump interjected: “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Mr. Trump’s failure to publicly pressure Mr. Putin on election interference drew swift rebukes from lawmakers in both parties.
Sen. Lindsey Graham
(R., S.C.) tweeted that the news conference amounted to a “missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.”
He added: “This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”
Mr. Putin was also asked whether he had compromising material on Mr. Trump or his family, a reference to unsubstantiated allegations that U.S. intelligence agencies shared with the president-elect last year that said the Kremlin had such material. In response, Mr. Putin laughed.
“When President Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow,” he said.
The two leaders said they discussed a range of issues during their four hours of meetings, including arms control, Syria and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Mr. Trump described their talks as “direct, open, deeply productive” and said the two nations would seek greater cooperation in the “pursuit of shared interests.”
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr. Trump declared. “However, that changed, about four hours ago.” Hours earlier, in a tweet, Mr. Trump blamed the U.S. for the poor state of its relations with Moscow.
Asked during the news conference why he blamed the U.S. for the state of the relationship, Mr. Trump said: “I hold both countries responsible.”
“The United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said. “We have both made some mistakes.”
Mr. Putin also struck a collegial tone, declaring the Cold War “a thing of the past” and saying the leaders worked together Monday “to restore an acceptable level of trust.”
In the news conference, Mr. Putin outlined an arms-control agenda for future U.S.-Russia discussions that included extension of the New START treaty, compliance with the 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, Russian concerns over U.S. missile defenses and a ban on weapons in space.
But Mr. Putin didn’t urge deeper cuts in nuclear arms. Nor did he explain in his public remarks how Russia might resolve U.S allegations that the Kremlin has violated the 1987 accord by deploying what Washington says is an illegal cruise missile. He said that Russia has submitted a diplomatic paper to the U.S. with some of its arms-control proposals.
Mr. Trump hinted Monday that the U.S. wouldn’t try to block the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, after last week saying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would make Germany overly dependent on Russian energy.
“We will have to be competing with the pipeline,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin comes after the U.S. president spent much of last week in tense meetings with longstanding U.S. allies at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit and delivering critical comments about U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit process. He left Brussels affirming the U.S.’s commitment to NATO and later said he apologized to Mrs. May.
Some NATO allies and diplomats had expressed concern ahead of the summit that Mr. Trump might make concessions on Crimea and reverse the longstanding U.S. and NATO position that Crimea belongs to Ukraine. The president has made comments in recent months that appear sympathetic to Russia’s position on the annexation.
Asked whether Mr. Trump had done so on Monday, Mr. Putin said the U.S. leader’s stance on Crimea was “well-known” and said the president “continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.”
“Our viewpoint is different,” he said.
Ahead of the news conference, the two leaders met one-on-one for more than two hours before being joined by their advisers for another two hours.
Speaking at the Presidential Palace at the outset of their one-on-one meeting, Mr. Trump said he expected to have an “extraordinary relationship” with the Russian leader and that they would discuss issues related to trade, the military, nuclear weapons, missiles and China, including their “mutual friend” Chinese President
“We have great opportunities together as two countries,” Mr. Trump said, as the two leaders sat beside each other, with American and Russian flags behind them. “I really think the world wants to see us get along.”
sought a reset of U.S.-Russia relations early in his administration. But the situation soured after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which prompted its expulsion from the former Group of Eight, now the Group of Seven. The U.S. has since heightened sanctions on Moscow and expelled Russian diplomats for its interference in the 2016 election and following the poisoning in the U.K. of a former Russian spy and his daughter, an act that Western countries say was likely carried out by Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s
account on Monday “liked” the president’s tweet blaming the U.S. for the state of the relationship, and quoting the tweet, wrote: “We agree.” Russian state-owned news agencies also prominently featured the tweet. A headline on the Russian news site RIA Novosti read: “Relations with Russia have deteriorated because of the stupidity of the United States, said Trump.”
No note-takers were seen in the room with the two leaders ahead of their meeting. Mr. Trump had been reluctant to include a note-taker in the one-on-one meeting because he is wary of leaks, said a foreign official briefed on the plans.
But the lack of note-taker raised concerns among some diplomats and former U.S. officials that there would be no official record of the meeting, posing risks including that the Russians might offer a misleading account of what was discussed. A notepad and pen sat beside Mr. Putin on a small table. Mr. Trump didn’t appear to have any such pad beside him.
—Michael R. Gordon contributed to this article.
Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at [email protected]
Source : WSJ