HELSINKI: Standing side-by-side with Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump yesterday refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the US 2016 election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism at home.
On a day when he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Trump spoke not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Instead, he denounced the “stupidity” of his own country’s policy, especially the decision to investigate election interference following the conclusions drawn by US intelligence agencies. A prosecutor announced an indictment three days ago of Russian spies for hacking into Democratic Party networks.
Trump’s handling of a joint news conference in Helsinki stirred a wave of condemnation in the US, where the White House has struggled for months to dispel a suggestion that Trump was unwilling to stand up to Putin.
His performance was denounced as “treasonous” by a former CIA chief and US Senator John McCain called meeting with Putin a “tragic mistake,” although some other Republicans were more cautious.
Asked if he believed US intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help him defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, he said he was not convinced.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
In one response, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump nominee approved by Congress, said in a statement, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Hours after the Helsinki summit, Trump tweeted, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.”
Before the summit even began, Trump blamed his own country for the deterioration in relations.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” he said on Twitter.
The Russian foreign ministry tweeted back: “We agree”.
At the news conference, Trump was invited by reporters to offer any criticism of Russia but he repeatedly declined. Asked if Russia was at all to blame for the poor ties, he said, “I hold both countries responsible. I think the US has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said, before veering into discussion about his election victory.
“I beat Hillary Clinton easily and frankly we beat her ... we won that race and it’s a shame that there can be even a little bit of a cloud over it,” he said.
Putin spoke of the importance of the two countries working together and praised Trump, at one point interrupting the news conference to give the US president a soccer ball. Asked whether he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election and had instructed officials to help him, Putin said, “Yes I did,” although he denied any interference.
- A 29-year-old Russian woman living in Washington was arrested and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government while developing ties with American citizens and infiltrating political groups, the US Justice Department said yesterday.