President Donald Trump said that President Vladimir Putin had assured him again Saturday that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign, and indicated that he believed Putin's sincerity, drawing immediate criticism from lawmakers and former intelligence officials who assessed that the meddling took place.
“I asked him again,” Trump said after what he described as several brief, informal chats with Putin in Danang, Vietnam, where they were attending a regional conference. “You can only ask so many times... He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.
“I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it... I think he's very insulted, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told reporters travelling with him aboard Air Force One from Danang to Hanoi, on the ninth day of a long Asia tour. Trump voiced similar conclusions after his only previous meeting with Putin, last July in Germany.
Trump's response to questions about his conversations with Putin was a jarring return to the more insular preoccupations of Washington after more than a week of what has been a trip filled with pageantry and pledges of mutual admiration, but few substantive outcomes, between Trump and Asian leaders.
Trump suggested that what he called the “artificial Democratic hit job” of investigations of possible collusion between his campaign and Russia were somehow preventing US-Russia cooperation on a range of issues, including North Korea. “It's a shame,” he said, “because people will die because of it.”
In his own news conference after their talks, Putin said he knew “absolutely nothing” about Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials, and called reports that a campaign official met with his niece “bollocks,” according to an interpreter.
“They can do what they want, looking for some sensation,” Putin said of the investigations. “But there are no sensations.”
Trump described the former top US intelligence officials who concluded in January that the tampering took place - including former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr and former CIA director John Brennan - as “political hacks.” He called former FBI director James Comey, who testified before Congress that Trump asked him to drop an investigation of his campaign's connections to Russian officials, a proven “liar” and a “leaker.”
Clapper said in a statement that “the president was given clear and indisputable evidence that Russia interfered in the election. His own DNI and CIA director have confirmed the finding in the intelligence community assessment. The fact that he would take Putin at his word over the intelligence community is unconscionable.”
Brennan declined to comment.
In a statement, the CIA said that Director Mike Pompeo “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community assessment... with regard to Russian election meddling.” That position, it said, “has not changed.” The assessment also concluded that Russia had acted to promote Trump's victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Although Pompeo said last month that intelligence agencies had determined that Russian interference had not altered the electoral outcome, the assessment did not address that question.
Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said he was so concerned by Trump's statement that he contacted the agency to confirm that it stood by the January assessment. He described Trump's remarks as “egregious comments on the character of folks who have been public servants... [and] the public should know that these guys are thoroughgoing professionals, and what the president left unsaid is that the people he put into these jobs agree with the so-called hacks.”
Senior officials in the intelligence community will be dismayed by the disparagement of two respected intelligence veterans, Hayden said, and “people have a right to ask at senior levels: 'Does what I do make a difference anymore?' ”
Michael Morell, a former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, said Trump was “biting hook, line and sinker” the word of Putin, a former intelligence officer who is a “trained liar and manipulator.” Although progress had been made in the intelligence community's initial raw relationship with Trump, Morell said in an email, “this will most definitely be a step backward.”
Senator Mark Warner, Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the panels investigating Russian interference in the presidential campaign, said he was left “completely speechless” by Trump's willingness to take Putin's word “over the conclusions of our own combined intelligence community.”
Representative Adam Schiff, California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement: “Instead of criticising the Russian leader for the audacity of his interference and denials, he attacked Directors Brennan, Clapper and Comey... But the President fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponents emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail.”
Several Republican members of the Senate and House intelligence panels did not respond to requests to comment on Trump's remarks.
Senator John McCain, Republican-Arizona, said in a statement that “there's nothing 'America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community... Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”
Trump's latest comments on the subject came as investigations of allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia have moved into a new, more visible and potentially consequential phase.
Special counsel Robert Mueller filed criminal charges two weeks ago against three people - including a former Trump campaign chairman and two lower-level campaign advisers - and more charges are expected.
Although Trump, his family members and close aides continue to reject any suggestion of collusion, new evidence has emerged that people in Trump's orbit communicated with Russians during the campaign. Three congressional committees investigating the matter are focused in part on a meeting that occurred in Trump Tower in June 2016, attended by Trump's son Donald Trump Jr; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, with a well-connected Russian lawyer offering negative information about Clinton.
In his news conference, Putin said he and Trump “hardly know each other.” He described the US President as “very professional, very friendly, he behaves very appropriately,” and added, “Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to get down to some more details, because we have many matters to discuss.”
The two leaders issued a joint statement pledging to continue their cooperation to defeat the Islamic State in Syria, and their commitment to UN-brokered peace negotiations between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and opponents fighting to oust him.
Putin also said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who held a long meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, had “similar views” on various issues, including North Korea. “Our views completely coincide. . . . We do not accept the nuclear status of that country,” Putin said.
Trump said in his airborne remarks to reporters that a Xi statement calling for the denuclearisation of North Korea, which depends on China for its economic survival, was a major step forward that “a lot of people... didn't pick up.”
Russia, Trump said, also could be “tremendously helpful” on North Korea but was prevented by “this artificial Democrat barrier” of the election investigations. “I think it's a shame that something like that can destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries that are very important countries,” Trump said. “Russia could really help us.”
Putin blamed the lack of a formal meeting with Trump at the conference on the “failure” of their respective teams, and said they would be “lectured” on the lapse.
Relations with the United States, Putin said, are “still in crisis,” even though Russia is “saying that we are ready to turn that page over and go forward and look into the future.”
Putin noted that Russia's relations with China, a country that he said would soon be “the biggest economy” in the world, are growing stronger. The United States, he said, is losing out on profitable investments in Russia, presumably because of sanctions.
“If you don't want to work,” Putin said, “there will be others. Your competitors will come and take your place.”
The Washington Post
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