By Steve Herman
Donald Trump, standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, has declared he cannot see any reason to believe Moscow meddled in the election that led to him becoming U.S. president in 2016.
Every major U.S. intelligence agency has concluded there was such interference by Russia during the election and the matter is the focus of a major federal investigation that has targeted not only Russians, but members of Trump’s election campaign staff.
“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said of his query to Putin on Monday about the issue. “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Putin said he told Trump during their talks that “the Russian state never interfered and does not plan to interfere in the internal American electoral process.”
Trump informed reporters at a news conference in Finland’s presidential palace that he spent a “great deal of time” addressing the Russian meddling issue.
The U.S. president said he did not directly criticize his Russian counterpart over that issue or any other on which Washington and Moscow have significant differences.
American politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as former U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats, began sharply criticizing Trump’s remarks, even before the president had boarded Air Force One for the flight back home.
Hours later, on the trip back to Washington, Trump tweeted he has “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” He added, “However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past. …”
Both leaders characterized their talks as having gone well.
“Our expectations are grounded in realism, but our hopes are grounded in America’s desire for friendship, cooperation and peace,” Trump said. “And I think I can speak on behalf of Russia when I say that, also.”
The two presidents spent more than two hours speaking face to face with only their translators present. That discussion was followed by wider talks involving aides.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago,” the U.S. president declared at the news conference.
The Monday meeting came three days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of meddling in the election to help Trump win the White House.
Putin on Monday, alongside Trump at the news conference, invited Mueller’s investigators to visit Russia.
The Russian leader also suggested Mueller send a request to Russian authorities concerning those indicted in America.
“Our law enforcement is perfectly able to do this questioning and send the appropriate materials to the United States,” Putin said.
Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States, so it is unlikely it would turn the suspects over to the United States to stand trial.
The fresh indictments had prompted a number of U.S. senators, all but one of them Democrats, to request Trump cancel his summit with Putin.
At the news conference, Putin was asked whether his government had compromising information on the U.S. president — a reference to the so-called Steele dossier that contains unverified salacious information about one of Trump’s visits to the country as a businessman.
“I was an intelligence officer myself, and I do know how dossiers are made up,” replied Putin. He added that it is “utter nonsense” to imagine that Russia tries to collect compromising material on every important American business figure who visits the country.
During his week in Europe, Trump was combative with traditional U.S. allies — beginning at a NATO summit in Brussels, where he chastised European leaders for not spending more on defense.
He put himself in the middle of a domestic political controversy in London, where he told a tabloid newspaper that Prime Minister Theresa May had ignored his advice about how to pursue Britain’s exit from the European Union. He also stated Boris Johnson, who had quit May’s Cabinet as foreign minister over disagreement with her Brexit plan, “would be a great prime minister.”