President Donald Trump said he addressed Russia’s interference in the U.S. 2016 election and that President Vladmir Putin was “extremely strong” in his denials.
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“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,” President Trump said, standing at podium side-by-side with the Russian president during a joint press conference Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
He continued: “So 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.”
While Putin has long denied Russian involvement and did so again Monday, the U.S. intelligence community has long maintained that Russia did in fact meddle in the U.S. election, and just three days ago, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian government agents for hacking the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.
Trump said Monday that Putin made an “incredible offer” to allow US investigators work alongside Russian investigators.
“He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said.
President Trump said that relations between the two nations were at a historic low point prior to today’s meeting but argued that relations have already taken a positive turn as a result of today’s diplomatic engagement.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” President Trump said.
Trump described the conversations as “direct, open, [and] deeply productive,” while Putin called the meeting a “success” and “fruitful.”
Asked if he holds Russia accountable for any specific element of the strained relations between the two nations, Trump said he holds both countries accountable but specifically zeroed in on the ongoing special counsel probe in the US as a “disaster” that has divided the U.S. domestically and for having a damaging impact on US-Russian relations.
“I do feel that we have both made some mistakes,” Trump said. “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. Everybody knows it.”
“We won that race,” Trump said, referencing his victory over Hillary Clinton. “It’s a shame there could be a cloud over it. People know that. People understand it. The main thing – we discussed this also – is zero collusion. It has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world.”
When a reporter questioned Putin on his continued denials of US election meddling, President Trump jumped in to say “we ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.”
Even as he was deeply critical of the special counsel probe, President Trump did not offer any public condemnation of Russia’s meddling in the election.
The two leaders met for a long-anticipated summit Monday, but initially publicly made no mention of thorny issues like election meddling, Syria or Crimea before sitting down for the first meeting, a one-on-one encounter.
The two leaders began the summit by walking quietly into a room in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. Against the backdrop of six U.S. and Russian flags, Putin broke the silence with brief remarks.
But when Trump spoke, he didn’t publicly address some of the issues vexing politicians back home, in Europe and the Middle East, such as the federal indictments last week of Russian military intelligence officers, Russia’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the annexation of Crimea.
Instead, he started his remarks by congratulating his counterpart on hosting the World Cup.
“I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup, one of the best ever,” Trump said. “And for also your team doing so well.
“It was beautifully done,” he added, saying he watched the finals.
Trump said they’ll be talking about trade, military and China. Among the major topics will be repairing the deteriorating relationship between the two countries, he added.
“We’ve been not getting along for the past years,” Trump said. “We’ll have an extraordinary relationship.
“And I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers. It’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing. So we’ll be talking about that, among other things.”
Putin, who is known to keep world leaders waiting, arrived almost 30 minutes late in Helsinki for the meeting. In his opening remarks, he said the time had come for bilateral relations in “various hotspots in the world.”
“There are enough of them that we have paid attention to them,” he said.
“I am glad to meet with you on the hospitable soil of Finland,” Putin told Trump.
He didn’t address some of the more controversial issues, either.
After both leaders spoke, they briefly shook hands.
The pool of reporters shouted several questions about election meddling to Trump after his remarks but he didn’t respond.
The leaders then ducked into a private room to start the bilateral meeting with advisers and interpreters.
After two hours of meeting privately, Trump and Putin emerged and then headed to the expanded bilateral meeting and working lunch.
Trump told reporters the private part of the summit had gone well.
“I think it’s a good start, a very good start for everybody,” he said.
Trump and Putin will hold a news conference after the lunch.
The meeting happened after a week of worldwide anxious anticipation spanning from the United States to Europe to Russia.
Before they met, Trump tweeted, “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 has said he hopes to improve relations with Russia but has placed blame for the deteriorated relationship on his predecessor, President Barack Obama, rather than Russian aggression and meddling.
Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2018
The Russian ministry of foreign affairs tweeted Monday: “We agree.”
When asked about his message to Putin during a breakfast at Mantyniemi, the Finnish president’s residence, with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and first lady Jenni Haukio, Trump simply replied, “We’ll do just fine, thank you.”
The stakes are high for the summit. Just days before Trump arrived in Helsinki, special counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments on 12 Russian spies for their alleged interference in the 2016 election.
News of action by Mueller added additional pressure on the president to address election meddling and hold Putin accountable for Russian aggression. Monday’s meeting loomed large over each leg of the president’s tour.
At NATO, allied leaders condemned Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and British Prime Minister Theresa May said at a news conference with Trump that she welcomed “the strong response from the U.S. on the poisonings in Salisbury.”
Trump said election interference, along with Syria, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and meddling will be among the topics on the table Monday.
“I know you’ll ask will we be talking about meddling. And I will absolutely bring that up. 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 you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question,” Trump said at Chequers, May’s residence, Friday.
It was still unclear if the issues came up during the private meeting.
Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov told reporters before the summit that if Trump brings up interference in the U.S. election, he will “reiterate that Russia did not and could not bear any relation to the matter on which such speculations are centered.”
Over the weekend, Trump and his White House advisers tried to downplay the impact of the summit. For the White House, the meeting isn’t so much about resolving problems but building a diplomatic bridge between two countries that have not seen worse relations since the Cold War.
Trump himself said he did not have “high expectations” for their talks, and White House national security adviser John Bolton, who took the lead on orchestrating the summit by traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin, said the United States should not expect any deliverables or written agreements, like the joint agreement made by Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.
“We have asked and the Russians have agreed that it will be basically unstructured. We’re not looking for concrete deliverables here,” Bolton said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.” “I think it’s very important that the president has a direct one-on-one conversation with President Putin. That’s how this is going to start.”
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman even said it’s not a “summit” but a “meeting” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“Listen, and it isn’t a summit. I’ve heard it called a summit. This is a meeting. In fact, it’s the first meeting between the two presidents. They’ve had some pull-asides, one at the G20 in Hamburg and the other at the APEC Ministerial in Da Nang, Vietnam,” Huntsman said. “But this is really the first time for both presidents to actually sit across the table and have a conversation. And I hope it’s a detailed conversation about where we might be able to find some overlapping and shared interests. This has not happened before.”
Trump went on to call it a summit later in a tweet.
While allied NATO leaders like May were encouraged by Trump’s meeting with Putin, lawmakers at home expressed skepticism before the talks in Finland and even told Trump to cancel their meeting if he could not guarantee a hardline response to election meddling.
“President Trump must be willing to confront Putin from a position of strength and demonstrate that there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression towards the United States and democracies around the world,” Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement. “If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward.”
Concern has grown the president will make concessions with Russia, or come out with nothing much to show for the meeting except handshakes, smiles and photos, particularly as aides have said the president hasn’t been keen on studying up ahead of the summit, according to ABC News sources.
“Will I be prepared? I’m totally prepared. I have been preparing for this stuff my whole life,” Trump said at a rally in Montana before he left for Europe.
Trump spent the weekend before the summit at Trump Turnberry resort on the coast of Scotland meeting with advisers, tweeting and playing golf.
Early Monday and hours before the meeting, protests broke out in Helsinki calling for human rights and democracy.
It’s the first official summit between the presidents of the United States and Russia since 1997 when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin produced a breakthrough agreement on arms control in Helsinki.
ABC News’ Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.