President Trump handed Russian President Vladimir Putin an unalloyed diplomatic triumph during their Helsinki summit on Monday as he refused to support the collective conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
Trump’s warm rhetorical embrace of Putin, who he said had given him an “extremely strong and powerful” denial that Russia assaulted US democracy, marked an extraordinary capstone to the first formal meeting between the current leaders of the world’s nuclear superpowers and sparked trepidation and horror among many in Washington and around the globe.
At a remarkable 46-minute joint news conference inside the Finnish presidential palace, Trump would not challenge Putin’s claim that the Russian government played no role in trying to sabotage the US election, despite the Justice Department’s indictments Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking Democratic emails as part of a broad subterfuge operation to help Trump win the election.
Trump went on to condemn the expansive federal investigation of Russian interference as “a disaster for our country” and “a total witch hunt,” arguing that the probe, along with “foolish” American policies, had severely impaired relations between the two countries.
The gathering along the glistening waterfront of this Nordic capital turned into a clear political victory for the Russian president, who aims to expand his country’s global influence by sowing discord within the United States and disrupting Western alliances.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the summit “fabulous” and “better than super,” according to Russian news agencies, while Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was snickering with exuberance as he watched the news conference from the sidelines.
Trump and Putin spent their first two hours speaking alone, joined only by their interpreters. After emerging from the tete-a-tete with the former KGB agent, Trump appeared to discount the findings of his own intelligence agencies about Russia’s behavioUr.
Both presidents are highly focused on projecting dominance and machismo, but Trump on Monday waffled beside a stone-faced Putin and avoided a confrontation when an Associated Press reporter asked Trump whether he believes US intelligence officials or Putin.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Trump replied, referring to intelligence officials. “I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia.”
Trump added: “I will say this — I don’t see any reason why it would be. . . I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump declined an invitation by the AP reporter, Jonathan Lemire, to warn Putin, with the world watching, never again to interfere in a US election.
And with Trump looking on, Putin insisted to reporters that “the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election process.”
Trump’s failure to confront Putin drew stern rebukes from leaders of both political parties in Washington and left the American national security establishment alarmed and dismayed.
As Trump returned to Washington aboard Air Force One, the president took to Twitter to defend his performance.
“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!” wrote the president, who has remained fixated on the exploits of his campaign two years ago.
Discussing the investigation here Monday with Putin at his side, Trump insisted that there had been no coordination between his campaign and Moscow, using as his argument that he had no relationship with Putin at the time.
“I didn’t know the president,” Trump said. “There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign.”
Trump went on to air many of his pet grievances, including unsubstantiated conspiracy theories familiar to his campaign rally crowds and Twitter followers.