President Donald Trump refused to say whether he believes his own intelligence agencies or President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
After holding their first summit in Helsinki, Trump and Putin held out the prospect of a new era of cooperation between the two countries as Trump continued to throw into doubt long-standing assumptions about the West’s political, military and trade alliances.
But Trump refused to say that he believed U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, as a news conference where international affairs were expected to dominate turned again and again to the president’s domestic political troubles. The timing was exceptionally awkward, just days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in an attempt to aid Trump.
The summit capped a weeklong trip to Europe in which Trump made his distaste for diplomatic norms abundantly clear: He caused turmoil at the NATO summit and during a visit to Britain by demanding that allies spend more on defense; saying that Prime Minister Theresa May was mishandling the British exit from the European Union known as Brexit, advising her to sue the European Union over the issue; and calling the bloc a trade “foe.”
In hours of meetings with Putin, Trump raised the matter of election interference by Russia, which Putin again denied, but when asked directly whether he believed Putin or his own intelligence agencies, Trump declined to answer.
The two leaders vowed to improve relations between their countries, but offered no specific areas where they could agree. Even so, the meeting will be closely scrutinized for signs of whether Trump is friendlier to his Russian counterpart than he had been to NATO leaders.
U.S. observers on both sides of the political aisle feared that Trump, who dislikes policy briefings and has said he needed no preparation for the meeting, could be an easy mark for manipulation by Putin, a former intelligence agent whom Trump has refused to criticize directly.
Asked whether he believes his own intelligence agencies, which say that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, or Putin, who denies it, Trump refused to say, but he expressed doubt about whether Russia was to blame.
Trump raised the matter of Russian electoral meddling, the two leaders said at a news conference after their meetings, and Putin reiterated his denial of Russian involvement.
Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, and other U.S. intelligence officials “said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
But when asked directly whom he believes, Trump changed the subject to misconduct by Democrats during the campaign.
The president’s ambivalence, after the indictments of Russian intelligence agents for the election hacking and after the findings of congressional committees, represents a remarkable divergence between Trump and the U.S. national security apparatus.
Putin said: “President Trump mentioned the so-called interference of Russia in the American elections. I had to reiterate things I said several times: that the Russian state has never interfered, and is not going to interfere, in internal American affairs, including the election process.”
He offered to have Russian intelligence agencies work with their U.S. counterparts to get to the bottom of the matter.
“I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections,” Trump said. “I felt this was a matter best discussed in person. President Putin may very well want to address it, and very strongly, because he feels very strongly about it and he has an interesting idea.”
A New Era of Cooperation — But On What?
Both leaders expressed confidence that Russia and the United States were entering a period of better relations and cooperation on global problems, but they did not cite any examples and their news conference exposed continued areas of disagreement.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and continues to support Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, aggression that the West has condemned. Trump did not address the matter publicly, either before or after the meetings Monday, but Putin was asked whether his American counterpart had made any concessions.
“The posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known and he stands firmly by it,” Putin said. “He continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it, our viewpoint is different.”
Putin made a point of noting that the two leaders still disagree strongly on the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from in May and which the Russian president hailed as a great success.
Speaking to reporters before the meetings, Trump cited the reduction of nuclear arsenals as a major item on his agenda. “We have 90 percent of the nuclear and that’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing,” he had said.
He raised the issue again at the post-summit news conference, but Putin did not and it was not clear that the matter had been discussed much less that any progress had been made.
Putin said that the war in Syria could be “the first showcase example of the successful joint work” between the two countries. But with Russia supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the United States backing a rebel faction that opposes the government, it is not clear what room there is for cooperation there.
It was not clear whether the two presidents discussed another area of conflict, the British government’s assertion that a nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England in March was carried out by current or former agents of a Russian intelligence service, the GRU. The United States has backed up Britain’s claim and expelled dozens of Russian Embassy and Consulate employees.
Trump Blames U.S. for Tensions with Russia
Trump began the day of the meeting by blaming the United States for its poor relationship with Russia, casting aspersions on the federal investigation into Moscow’s cyberattack on the 2016 presidential election, even as he said he felt “just fine” about meeting with Putin.
In a pair of tweets sent Monday before he headed for breakfast at Mantyniemi Palace, a residence of the Finnish president, Trump twice branded the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference the “Rigged Witch Hunt.”
That investigation, and “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” he wrote, are why the United States’ relationship with Russia “has NEVER been worse” — a bold claim, given that the history includes periods like the Cuban missile crisis, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
He did not mention factors that are usually cited in the West as causes for friction with Moscow: Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for rebels in Ukraine and for the Assad regime in Syria, its meddling in the elections of the United States and in those of other countries, and the nerve agent poisonings in England that the British government has said the Kremlin was behind.
The president’s tweet drew praise and a “like” from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Trump reiterated the point in his prepared remarks at the news conference with Putin, saying: “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”
“Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, to refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything,” he added. “As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics or the media, or Democrats who don’t want to do anything but resist and obstruct.”
Trump also lashed out at former President Barack Obama for the second day in a row, tweeting that his predecessor had failed to intervene to stop Russia’s hacking because he “thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election.”
The messages suggested that Trump, who has never directly condemned Putin for the election meddling and has cast doubt on whether he even agrees with his own intelligence community’s finding that it was carried out by Moscow, has not changed his stance in the wake of the indictment last week of 12 Russian agents in the attack.
Trump had said that he would ask Putin about the meddling during their talks but that he did not expect the Russian president to admit culpability and that the issue was an obstacle toimproving relations between the United States and Russia.
At the breakfast with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and his wife, Trump telegraphed confidence about the day ahead, saying, “We’ll do just fine.”
Asked If Russia Is to Blame, Too, Trump Says Yes, but Cites No Specifics
Asked at the news conference if he held Russia at all responsible for conflict with the United States, Trump said: “Yes, I do, I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.”
But he did not cite a single specific thing Russia had done to contribute to tensions. And as he often does, Trump pivoted from the question that was asked to declaring his innocence of collusion with Russian election meddling and boasting about his electoral victory.
“That was a clean campaign,” he said. “I beat Hillary Clinton easily and frankly we beat her. We won that race and it’s a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it. The main thing and we discussed this also: zero collusion.”
“There was no collusion,” he added. “I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with.”
Later, when Trump was asked whether he believed Putin over his own intelligence officials, he changed the subject again, reiterating his old grievance that law enforcement was not aggressive enough in pursuing what he says were misdeeds by Clinton and her campaign.
When asked about the credibility of his denials, Putin said: “As to who is to be believed, as to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one. Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or that I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America and I defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have interests in common and we are looking for points of contact.”
Trump Cited Trade and Nuclear Weapons as Agenda Items, But Not Election Meddling
Trump indicated, moments before he and Putin began their private meeting, that trade and reducing their nations’ nuclear arsenals would be high on the agenda.
But he did not mention the issue that has dogged him at home, the Russian interference in the 2016 election. Just days ago, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for computer hacking intended to influence the election.
He also did not mention Russia’s annexation of Crimea or allegations that it had used a nerve agent on British soil.
“We will have discussions on everything from trade to military to nuclear,” and “a little bit about China — our mutual friend, President Xi,” Trump said, as he and Putin posed for photographs before going behind closed doors.
“I think we have great opportunities as two countries that, frankly, we have not been getting along too well,” he said, against a backdrop of three American and three Russian flags. “I think the world really wants to see us get along.”
He also praised Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup, which ended on Sunday.
“I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup, one of the best ever,” Trump said. “It was beautifully done, so congratulations.”
He and Putin first met with only translators in the room before they convened with advisers present. Walking from one session to the other, Trump said to reporters: “I think it’s a good start. Very, very good start for everybody.”
The president’s cheery comment came as the Americans and Russians were running several hours behind schedule for a joint news conference with the two leaders.
It also came days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian agents on charges of hacking during the 2016 U.S. election — and British investigators believe that a poisoning attack carried out on a former Soviet spy and his daughter was carried out by current or former agents of the intelligence service they worked for, known as the GRU.
On Monday, Trump had not publicly addressed the issue of meddling, except to blame the United States for the bad relationship with Russia.
After Berating NATO Allies, Trump Says They’re ‘Thanking Me’
Trump, who disparaged U.S. allies during last week’s NATO meeting, tweeted Monday that he had “received many calls from leaders of NATO countries thanking me” for pressuring other nations to spend more on their militaries.
He did not name the leaders or their countries.
The president has been similarly short on specifics about his claim Thursday that in response to his demands, other member nations had pledged major increases in military spending. He did not name countries, give dollar amounts or timetables.
The official communiqué from the meeting committed the countries to the same spending increases they agreed to four years ago, and the president of France and the prime minister of Italy both said after Trump spoke that no new commitments were made.
Trump unsettled the alliance — even appearing to suggest behind closed doors, some diplomats said, that the United States could withdraw from it — in ways that analysts said could work to the benefit of Putin.
But in his tweet, Trump called the summit “truly great” and “inaccurately covered by much of the media.”
And at a breakfast Monday with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland, Trump said his tactics had been just the tough love needed to strengthen the alliance.
“I enjoyed being with you a couple of days ago,” Trump told Niinisto. “NATO has, I think, never been stronger. It was a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love. I appreciated your support.”
It was not clear what support Trump was referring to. Niinisto attended the NATO gathering, but Finland is not a NATO member, so he would not have been in a position to help the president’s push for more military spending.
Trump Is Fidgety, and Putin Stony, At Start of Meeting
Trump’s body language on this trip has alternated between aloof and uncomfortable, with brief moments of warmth — and that was when meeting the United States’ closest allies.
As Trump sat with Putin before their private meeting Monday, Trump, who often gesticulates and jokes while making his points, seemed to keep himself uncharacteristically restrained — except for the moment he inexplicably winked in the Russian president’s direction.
Still, Trump appeared fidgety while seated next to his stony Russian counterpart, whom he has repeatedly congratulated and tried to flatter before meeting him in Helsinki. In his opening remarks, he did it again.
“First of all Mr. President, I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup,” Trump said. “One of the best ever from what everybody tells me and also for your team, itself, doing so well.”
During the five-minute photo opportunity and brief remarks, Trump hunched forward in his chair, tapped his fingers together with his hands making an upside-down triangle — a gesture he has made in the presence of other leaders in high-stakes settings. His head swiveled back and forth between the news cameras and his translator, but he rarely looked at the Russian president.
Compared with Trump, who leaned forward toward the cameras, his eyes darting back and forth, Putin appeared clamped into his chair. The Russian president’s eyes rarely left the floor, and if they did, they were focused on Trump. His hands rarely left two fixed positions — one on his lap, the other curled backward, gripping the chair.
Trump, who has called journalists the enemy of the people, did not answer questions from the news media. When a journalist shouted a question about Russia tampering with the 2016 election, Putin’s face appeared to curl into a smirk.
For Putin, a Russian Jet, a Russian Limousine and a Delay
Putin arrived in Finland aboard a Russia-made Ilyushin-96 jet from Moscow and headed into Helsinki in his new, Russian-made limousine, which is even bigger than the U.S. president’s state car, known as the “Beast.”
Russia’s national airline, Aeroflot, and other Russian carriers mostly ditched Russian jets years ago and now fly planes made in the United States by Boeing and in Europe by Airbus. But Putin, who has poured billions of dollars into supporting Russia’s flagging aircraft industry, has stuck with the Ilyushin, a Soviet-era design.
As often happens with the Russian leader, Putin ran late — his airplane did not land until after 1 p.m. — leaving Trump cooling his heels in his guesthouse for almost an hour past his scheduled time to leave for the palace. They shook hands in front of the news cameras before heading into private talks, an hour behind schedule.
The Stakes are So High Even Some Trump Aides are Holding Their Breath
That Trump and Putin met one on one — with interpreters present but no advisers — added an element of unpredictability to a high-stakes encounter.
Trump’s perceived admiration of Putin, his urging at the recent Group of 7 meeting that Russia be readmitted despite its annexation of Crimea and his efforts to minimize U.S. intelligence about the impact of Moscow’s cyberattacks on the 2016 election had foreign policy experts and some in the White House wondering what he may give away to Putin — deliberately or inadvertently.
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, on Friday compared the danger of Russian cyberattacks with the warnings the United States had of increased terrorism threats before the Sept. 11 attacks. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
He said Russia should be held to account.
Allies including Britain say they welcome the Helsinki meeting, but May warned that it must address Russian “malign activity.” (Russia is the chief suspect in an attack using a nerve agent on British soil that led to a woman’s death.)
Some analysts also note that while Trump abhors briefing memos, Putin would be well schooled before the meeting. Analysts say the fact that the meeting occurred at all is already a victory of sorts for the Russian leader.
White House advisers have described the summit meeting as a chance to reset a tense relationship, and Trump has dismissed concerns, mocking those who point to Putin’s past as a spymaster, suggesting that he could manipulate the American leader.
“'You know, ‘President Putin is KGB,’ and this and that,” Trump said before the meeting. “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people. Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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