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Trump Denies Election Interference, Putin Says He Wanted Trump To Win In 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump meet in Helsinki on Monday. Trump is under pressure to confront Putin about the indictment of 12 Russians accused of conspiring to interfere in the 2016 election.
Brendan Smialowski AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump meet in Helsinki on Monday. Trump is under pressure to confront Putin about the indictment of 12 Russians accused of conspiring to interfere in the 2016 election.

Updated at 12:05 p.m. ET

Trump Denies Election Interference, Putin Says He Wanted Trump To Win In 2016
Trump Denies Election Interference, Putin Says He Wanted Trump To Win In 2016 GUEST: Scott Horsley, White House correspondent, NPR News

Our top story on Midday edition it was a news conference in Helsinki today that sent critics reeling after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. President Donald Trump said Putin gave him a very powerful denial about Russian election interference and he criticized the U.S. Justice Department's investigation. But I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it's kept us apart. It's kept us separated. There was no collusion at all for reaction at home to the president's comments and other topics from the Trump Putin joint news conference. We turn to Scott Horsley White House correspondent for NPR News. He joins us from NPR headquarters in Washington. And Scott welcome. Great to be with you Maureen. Can you give us some background about this press conference that came after the two leaders met. Do we know what that meeting was like. Well we know that the news conference was like and you said it Maureen it was the news conference from hell. Sanki for the president this was a a rare moment that has drawn bipartisan rebukes. I mean I've just been sifting through e-mails and Twitter feeds from certainly Democrats but also lots of Republicans and many of them are not pulling their punches. John McCain calls this one of the most disgraceful performances ever by an American president. The fact that Donald Trump was asked point blank do you believe the U.S. intelligence community or Vladimir Putin when it comes to Moscow's role in the 2016 election and the president could not come up with a declarative sentence that he sides with the U.S. intelligence community. I mean he has he's just drawing bipartisan scorn and this was supposed to be a reset with Russia but it may have burned a lot of bridges for the president back home. Now as we've heard President Trump says Putin gave him a strong denial about election interference but did the Russian president address the issue of election interference himself during the news conference. Well he reiterated that denial which is all the more you know credulity stretching just days after the grand jury here in the U.S. issued up that indictment against a dozen Russian military intelligence agents and spelled out in considerable detail just how the how the Russians went about their their campaign of hacking into DNC computers and finding embarrassing e-mails and circulating them. And you know other other acts during the 2016 campaign all of this just reinforcing the conclusion which was already out there from the U.S. intelligence community. And for that matter the Senate Intelligence Committee which has been digging into this that that Russia put its hand on the scale in 2016 and that it did so in hopes of electing Donald Trump. Putin did say today while he denied meddling he did acknowledge that it was his preference that Donald Trump become president. He suggested a joint working group on cyber security. Russian President Putin did during this press conference and he also said he'd be willing for U.S. agents to sit in on interrogations of the Russians indicted by Robert Mueller. But there were some big caveats to that invite weren't there. Yeah. And actually the cyber committee is something that the two presidents had agreed on more than a year ago when they met on the sidelines of the G 20 summit in Hamburg Germany. We haven't really heard much about that since then. There was some fanfare that OK we're going to really team up to prevent cyber crime that's a little bit like the fox and the hands getting together to say they're going to team up to keep the coop secure in this case. But once again President Putin on the one hand is denying that we've played any role. And then on the other hand saying but we'd be happy to work with you to get to the bottom of this. Now as as we've been mentioning the President Trumps criticism of the U.S. Justice Department and the Mullar investigation today is drawing an awful lot of criticism but he hasn't said anything here that he hasn't said in other venues about his disdain for this. What is the difference do you think. Well I think it was the venue it was the guy that was standing alongside of him. You know the president began this day by tweeting that American stupidity and foolishness was responsible for strained relations between Washington and Moscow. Overlooking you know some of the other factors that may have strained relations not only the interference in our election but the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine the poisoning of ex Russian spies in the UK. I mean there are lots of sources of friction and Trump just ignored all of that and put all the blame on American foolishness and stupidity. And what he refers to as the witch hunt. I mean this is this is what the Republicans like to criticize as blame America first conduct and it's coming from their own party standard bearer at a time you know just days after he he went about alienating America's closest allies in NATO and him during his visit to the U.K. last week. I've been speaking with Scott Horsley White House correspondent for NPR News. SCOTT It's wonderful to speak with you. Thank you. Always good to be with you. Harry.

In a remarkable press conference, President Trump did not attempt to contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials that Russia interfered with the 2016 election.

Trump, who said he had great confidence in the U.S. intelligence community, said all he could do was 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, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller at the conclusion of his hours-long summit with Russian leaders in Helsinki.

"I think the 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.

President Putin, however, claimed "there's no evidence when it comes to the actual facts" of interference. The Russian leader 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's "reciprocity" and Russian officers are allowed to investigate what he sees as "illegal actions" against Russia by American intelligence agencies.

Putin also said he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, because Trump talked during the campaign about wanting to normalize relations between the U.S. and Russia.

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 he did not give a clear answer, had been building 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 Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The meeting, in Helsinki, was the first stand-alone summit between the two leaders.

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 told reporters 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 the past, Putin has denied any Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential contest. And 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 Democratic National Committee, 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.

Hacking indictments overshadow meeting

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 Robert 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," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

"Russia attacked our democracy," added Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. "That's all the more reason why [Trump] must not meet one-on-one with Vladimir Putin, who, in the absence of U.S. experts or advisers, will undoubtedly take full advantage of an ill-prepared president."

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."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who is frequently critical of Trump, said Russia's election interference should not be a partisan issue.

"All patriotic Americans should understand that Putin is not America's friend, and he is not the President's buddy," Sasse said in a statement. "We should stand united against Putin's past and planned future attacks against us."

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

In addition to Russia's election interference, Trump said he wants 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."

Trump also told reporters 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.

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