U.S. president Donald Trump says he’s ready to “accept” Russian denials of interference in the 2016 U.S. election to instead focus on how to “move forward” on relations between the countries.
The news comes from U.S. and Russian accounts of a closed-door meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. U.S. and Russian officials differed on details of the interaction, but both suggested Trump was focused on moving past the issue.
In a press briefing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump “pressed” Putin on election interference, but indicated that improving U.S.-Russian relations was a higher priority.
“The President opened the meeting with President Putin by raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject. The President pressed President Putin, on more than one occasion, regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past. The two leaders agreed, though, that this is a substantial hindrance in the ability of us to move the Russian-U.S. relationship forward.”
Notable here is Tillerson’s description of Trump raising Americans’ concerns, rather than Trump’s own concerns, about Russia’s actions. Trump has consistently dismissed U.S. intelligence findings of Russian government involvement in cyberattacks on political parties and election systems before the 2016 election, even as a U.S. investigation seeks evidence tying Trump’s campaign directly to those actions.
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Answering subsequent questions, Tillerson reiterated Trump’s focus on the future: “I think what the two Presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how do we move forward . . . Because it’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution of that question between the two nations . . . it’s too important to not find a way to move forward – not dismissing the issue in any way, and I don’t want to leave you with that impression.”
Asked whether “the President was unequivocal in his view that Russia did interfere in the election,” Tillerson again seemed to punt, saying “The Russians have asked for proof and evidence. I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address the answer to that question.”
In a separate briefing, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking through a translator, went much further, indicating that Trump was fully satisfied by Putin’s denials.
“President Trump has said that he has heard clear declarations statements from Mr. Putin that Russian leadership and Russian government has not interfered in the election, and he accepts the things that Mr. Putin has said.”
The Trump administration described Lavrov’s comments as inaccurate.
But Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer saw Tillerson’s comments as sufficient indication that the Trump administration would let the issue remain unresolved. “Working to compromise the integrity of our election process cannot and should not be an area where ‘agree to disagree’ is an acceptable conclusion,” the New York Democrat said.