President Donald Trump called Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling a “disaster” on Monday, again questioned whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election that he won and suggested he equally trusted his national intelligence director and Vladimir Putin — all as he stood next to the Russian leader.
In a remarkable news conference following a summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki, both leaders addressed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin meddled in the election and the investigation into the interference, led by Mueller, that has resulted in charges against several Russians. The two men found themselves largely in agreement.
“The probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said after he was asked whether he holds Russia accountable at all for poor relations with the U.S. “It’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated.”
Trump said that “my people” including Dan Coats, his intelligence director “came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia.”
“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he continued. “I have confidence in both parties.”
Putin said that Trump had asked him about 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted in Mueller’s investigation on Friday and that he would “look into it.” He again denied Kremlin interference in the election but offered to allow Mueller to observe interrogations of the agents by Russian authorities. He said he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, but left unanswered a question about whether he’d done anything to help the then-candidate.
Earlier Monday, Trump blamed Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s campaign meddling for hurting relations between the countries. A U.S. grand jury indicted the Russian agents on Friday for their alleged involvement in hacking email accounts controlled by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, casting a shadow over the Helsinki summit.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by tweet: “We agree.”
Trump said that he again “addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections” with the Russian leader during their meetings on Monday.
“I felt this was a message best delivered in person.” The two leaders “spent a great deal of time talking about it,” he said.
Putin “felt very strongly about it and has an interesting idea,” Trump said.
Putin proposed an “expert council” to improve relations between the countries. He said he would allow Mueller to observe interviews of the 12 agents if Russian authorities were allowed to interview Americans including Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital chief executive who lobbied the U.S. government to adopt a law punishing Russian officials accused of human-rights abuses.
“Once again President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference in the American elections,” Putin said. “I had to reiterate things I said several times. The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs including the election process.”
Trump faced renewed pressure to confront Putin over Russia’s election interference following Friday’s indictments. Democratic members of Congress said Trump should cancel the summit, while several Republicans said he should at least take a harder line with the Russian leader.
But Trump downplayed the notion that there was much to be gained by pressing Putin on the issue, noting the Russian president had repeatedly denied Kremlin involvement. At a press conference Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump said not to expect a “Perry Mason” moment where his Russian counterpart owned up to the interference.
Trump said in an interview with CBS News broadcast on Sunday that the idea of asking Putin to extradite the agents hadn’t occurred to him, and he might do it. But he has largely downplayed the indictments, repeatedly noting that the alleged activities occurred during the previous administration.