By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
HELSINKI – President Trump stood next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday and publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, wrapping up what he called a “deeply productive” summit meeting with an extraordinary show of trust for a leader accused of attacking U.S. democracy.
In a remarkable news conference, Trump did not name a single action for which Putin should be held accountable. Instead, he saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the special counsel investigation into the election interference, calling it a “ridiculous” probe and a “witch hunt” that has kept the two countries apart.
Trump even questioned the determinations by his intelligence officials that Russia had meddled in the election.
“They said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” the president continued, only moments after Putin conceded that he had wanted Trump to win the election because of his promises of warmer relations with Moscow.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for the election hacking, Trump added. “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.”
The 45-minute news conference offered the spectacle of the two presidents both pushing back on the notion of Moscow’s election interference, with Putin demanding evidence of something he said had never been proved, and Trump appearing to agree.
When asked directly whether he believed Putin or his own intelligence agencies, Trump said there were “two thoughts” on the matter: one from U.S. officials like Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence, asserting Russia’s involvement; and one from Putin dismissing it. “I have confidence in both parties,” he said.
He then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, and asking about the fate of emails missing from the server of Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival. “Where are Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he said.
His performance drew fierce protests from Democrats and some Republicans, prompting John Brennan, a CIA director under President Barack Obama, to suggest that the remarks warranted Trump’s impeachment.
“Donald Trump’s news conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,’” Brennan wrote on Twitter, calling the president’s behavior “treasonous.” “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
The House speaker, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., released a statement saying, “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy.”
Both presidents said it was vital to talk to each other because, as leaders of two major nuclear powers, they had a responsibility to engage in dialogue and ensure global stability.
But Trump’s statements at the news conference were a remarkable break with his administration, which on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for cyberattacks intended to interfere in the presidential contest. The indictment explained, in detail, how Russian intelligence officers hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign, providing the most explicit account to date of the Russian government’s meddling in U.S. democracy.
Trump said he did not regard Putin as an adversary, but as a “good competitor,” adding that, “the word competitor is a compliment.”
When Putin was asked by an American reporter whether he had wanted Trump to win and directed an effort intended to bring about that result, the Russian president quickly answered, “Yes I did, yes I did, because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
It was not clear whether he had heard the translation of the second part of the question.
Putin said he would look into the possibility of having Russian law enforcement officials assist Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Moscow’s election interference, in questioning the 12 people who were charged. Trump called it an “incredible offer.”
But in return, Putin, who rolled his eyes and snickered at the notion that he had compromising material on Trump or his family, said that Russia would expect U.S. assistance in cases of interest to Moscow, including the ability to send Russian law enforcement officials to work in the United States.
He singled out Bill Browder, a long-standing critic of the Kremlin whose associates Putin accused of evading taxes and funneling millions of dollars to the Clinton campaign, without providing evidence.
Putin also took solace in Trump’s doubt-casting about who was responsible for the hacking, saying the allegations that Russia had directed the effort were “utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.”
Emerging from his one-on-one meeting with Putin, which was followed by a larger lunch meeting with advisers, Trump cited a litany of factors that he said had stood in the way of better relations between the United States and Russia. He blamed Democrats’ bitterness over having lost an election that they should have won, and Mueller’s investigation.
But Trump claimed to have defused all of that tension in a matter of minutes.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Trump said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”
Trump began his day Monday on Twitter, blaming U.S. “foolishness and stupidity” for years of escalating tension with Russia, as well as the “Rigged Witch Hunt.”
The comment appeared to absolve Moscow of many irritants in the relationship with Russia, including the election hacking, the annexation of Crimea, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and for the Assad government in Syria, and Moscow’s suspected use of a nerve agent to poison people in Britain.
In fact, Russia’s Foreign Ministry recirculated the comment, chiming in, “We agree.”
For much of the news conference, Trump appeared to be far more focused on defending the legitimacy of his election victory than on determining who was behind the election hacking.
“There was no collusion at all – everybody knows it,” Trump said.
“That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily.”
He added, “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.”
Later, in an interview with Fox News, Putin repeated his assertion that Russia had not interfered in the U.S. presidential race. But then he suggested that the hacking itself should not be treated as such an explosive issue, because the emails taken from Democratic officials were accurate.
“The information that I am aware of, there’s nothing false about it,” Putin said in the interview. “Every single grain of it is true. And the Democratic leadership admitted it.”
In the United States, critics of Trump reacted angrily to Trump’s contention that Russia and the United States shared blame for their deteriorated relationship.
“This is bizarre and flat-out wrong,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people, but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”
Ryan said, “There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideas.”
The summit meeting capped a weeklong European trip in which Trump disparaged NATO allies, castigated Germany, criticized the British prime minister on her own soil and branded the European Union a “foe” on trade – while he mused about his wish for warmer relations with Putin.
Many in Trump’s own government consider Putin a potentially dangerous adversary to be countered, not courted.