Updated at 1:38 p.m. ET
In a remarkable press conference, President Trump did not attempt to contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials that Moscow interfered with the 2016 election.
Trump said that he had great confidence in the U.S. intelligence community, which has said Russia interfered in the 2016 election. But he also said he could only ask Putin about Russia’s actions and pointed reporters to what he called Putin’s “strong and powerful” denials.
Trump also attacked Democrats, the FBI and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller at the conclusion of his hours-long summit with Russian leaders in Helsinki.
“I think the [special counsel] probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said. “We ran a brilliant campaign [in 2016], and that’s why I’m president.”
U.S. intelligence officials are in agreement that Russia interfered in the 2016 election using a wide array of methods, including but not limited to hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails, breaking into American voting infrastructure and launching a sprawling misinformation campaign.
Putin, however, claimed, “There’s no evidence when it comes to the actual facts” of interference. The Russian leader did say he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election because as a candidate, Trump talked about wanting to normalize relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Putin also said he would allow Mueller’s investigators to come to Russia, in connection to the special counsel’s recent indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers, if there is “reciprocity” and Russian officers are allowed to investigate what he sees as “illegal actions” against Russia by American intelligence agencies.
The stunning press appearance, in which American reporters asked the American president if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the leader of Russia and did not get a clear answer, was the culmination of growing anticipation over the past week.
Democratic leaders had been calling for Trump to cancel his summit with Putin after Mueller indicted the 12 Russians in connection with the DNC hack, and they were quick to respond on Monday.
“For the president to side with Putin over his own intelligence officials and blame the United States for Russia’s attack on our democracy is a complete disgrace,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee.
Congressional Democrats have also repeatedly wondered aloud about whether Russia has some sort of blackmail, or kompromat, on Trump, which would allow Putin to control the relationship.
“Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
When asked by a reporter whether Russia did in fact have damaging information, Putin dismissed the idea, saying, “Please disregard this issue and don’t think about it again.”
Trump followed that by saying, “If they have it, it would’ve been out by now.”
Many Republicans in Congress were also taken aback by the president’s tone of congeniality toward the Russian leader. In a tweet Monday morning, and then again in the public appearance, Trump said he held “both countries responsible” for the declining relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
“This is bizarre and flat-out wrong,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement. “When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”
Both Trump and Putin sought to point to conspiracy theories when asked directly about election interference efforts. Trump repeatedly pointed to a debunked theory about a former information technology specialist for congressional Democrats.
It was clear that Trump and Putin were not diametrically opposed on the issue.
“Could you name a single fact that would definitely prove the collusion?” Putin rhetorically asked a reporter, in response to a question about interference. “This is utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.”
The meeting in Finland was the first stand-alone summit between the two leaders. Other topics came up, including the ongoing conflict in Syria, Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the gas pipeline Nord Stream II, which Trump criticized last week.
Trump and Putin met privately for about two hours before being joined by their aides for a working lunch.
“I really think the world wants to see us get along,” Trump said. “I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years.”
In a tweet before the meeting, Trump blamed “U.S. foolishness and stupidity” for strained relations, ignoring Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom and Russian interference in the U.S. presidential race.
Trump had told reporters that he would raise the issue of Russia’s role in the election, though he doesn’t expect Putin to acknowledge any wrongdoing.
“I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump said Friday, during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. “I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.’ There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
In his opening statement on Monday, Putin confirmed that Trump did bring up what the Russian leader called “so-called interference.”
“I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election process,” Putin said.
In the past, Trump has argued there is little to gain from pursuing the issue.
“What am I going to do?” Trump asked. “He may deny it. I mean, it’s one of those things. All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ ”
The indictments unveiled Friday allege that agents from Russia’s GRU military intelligence service hacked email servers used by the DNC, along with state election systems and other targets. Embarrassing information was then passed along to WikiLeaks, which made the emails public.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he briefed Trump on the impending charges before the president left for Europe last week.
In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS, Trump said it hadn’t occurred to him to ask Putin to extradite the accused agents to the U.S.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “But I certainly — I’ll be asking about it.”
No Americans were charged with knowingly taking part in the hacking scheme, although that is thought to be a continuing subject of investigation by special counsel Mueller.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion between his campaign and Russia, often dismissing the special counsel’s probe as a “witch hunt.” Speaking to reporters on Friday, the president acknowledged that suspicion surrounding the ongoing investigation complicates his dealings with Putin.
“It makes it very hard to do something with Russia. Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia. He loves Russia,’ ” Trump said. “I love the United States. But I love getting along with Russia, and China, and other countries.”
Conciliatory with Russia, combative with NATO and EU
Trump’s conciliatory tone toward Putin is a stark contrast to his combative attitude at last week’s NATO summit, highlighting once again the president’s transactional approach to foreign policy. In his CBS interview over the weekend, Trump drew little distinction between Western democracies that share history and values with the United States and authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing.
“I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade,” Trump said. “Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive.”
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, rejected Trump’s description of the EU as a “foe” of the United States.
“America and the EU are best friends,” Tusk tweeted. “Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”
Once the indictments against Russian agents were made public last week, Democrats urged Trump to cancel the summit with Putin, or at least not to meet with the Russian leader with no aides present, but those warnings went unheeded.
“Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy,” Schumer said in a statement on Friday.
That warning was echoed by Bill Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush administration.
Burns acknowledged that previous presidents, including Ronald Reagan, have sometimes met privately with their Russian counterparts.
“The difference here is those were relatively small parts of very well-planned summits,” Burns told NPR’s Morning Edition. “In this case, the one-on-one is a central part of a very loosely and in fact poorly planned summit.”
National security adviser John Bolton anticipated this kind of criticism weeks ago when the Putin summit was announced. But he said Trump would not be deterred by what he called “political noise.”
“He judges, correctly in my view, that this bilateral summit between himself and President Putin is something he needs to do and will do, regardless of political criticism here at home,” Bolton said during a news conference in Moscow last month.
Trump told reporters after his one-on-one meeting with Putin that their talks were off to a “very good start.”
Arms control, Syria, Ukraine also on the agenda
Before the summit, Trump said he wanted to discuss arms control with Putin, as well as the ongoing fighting in Syria and Ukraine.
“I’m not going in with high expectations, but we may come out with some very surprising things,” Trump said during his U.K. news conference.
Trump downplayed his ties to Putin, saying they’ve met only a few times. The two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last year, as well as at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam.
“He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So in a sense, we’re competitors,” Trump told reporters after a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels last week. “Not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy, and hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend.”
Although U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was intended to help Trump and hurt his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump insisted he hasn’t done Moscow’s bidding as president. He pointed to his efforts to boost U.S. oil exports and increase military spending as measures that would not win any points with Putin.
Trump also expelled dozens of Russian diplomats earlier this year in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. And he agreed to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, a step that former President Barack Obama had resisted.
“I guarantee whoever is in Russia, they’re saying, ‘Oh, gee. Do we wish that Trump was not the victor in that election,’ ” Trump said. “We have been far tougher on Russia than anybody.”
At the same time, Trump has floated the idea of allowing Russia back into the G-7, making it the G-8 once again. Russia was suspended from the group in 2014 in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Trump refused to say last week whether he was prepared to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, even though his national security adviser has said that is not the position of the United States.
“That’s an interesting question,” Trump said in Brussels. “What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That I can’t tell you. But I’m not happy about Crimea.”
On Monday, Putin said the two leaders hold different opinions on Crimea and that he recognized that Trump feels the annexation of the country is illegal.
Trump also told reporters least week that he is willing to discuss ending joint military exercises with the Baltic states if Putin asks. The president granted a similar concession to North Korea last month, halting U.S. military exercises with South Korea at the request of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“You can’t solve problems if you’re not talking about them,” said Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia in a briefing before the Trump-Putin summit. “The president hopes that a meeting can help reduce tensions and lead to constructive engagement that improves peace and security around the world.”
At the same time, Huntsman had cautioned the meeting might not produce any breakthrough agreements.
“The fact that we’re having a summit at this level, at this time in history, is a deliverable in itself,” he said.