Trump calls Putin’s stance sin­cere

Nelson Mail - - WORLD -

VIET­NAM: Days be­fore re­turn­ing home from a whirl­wind trip to Asia, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was back on the de­fen­sive over Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling, say­ing he con­sid­ers Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­nials sin­cere, dis­miss­ing for­mer US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials as ‘‘po­lit­i­cal hacks’' and ac­cus­ing Democrats of try­ing to sab­o­tage re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries.

Speak­ing to re­porters aboard Air Force One, Trump said Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had again ve­he­mently in­sisted - this time on the side­lines of an eco­nomic sum­mit in Viet­nam - that Moscow had not in­ter­fered in the 2016 US elec­tions. Trump de­clined to say whether he be­lieved Putin, but he made clear he wasn’t in­ter­ested in dwelling on the is­sue.

‘‘He said he ab­so­lutely did not med­dle in our elec­tion. He did not do what they are say­ing he did,’' Trump said as he trav­elled to Hanoi, the sec­ond-to-last stop of his Asia trip.

‘‘Ev­ery time he sees me, he said: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I be­lieve - I really be­lieve - that when he tells me that, he means it,’' Trump said. He called the ac­cu­sa­tion an ‘‘ar­ti­fi­cial bar­rier’' erected by Democrats - once again cast­ing doubt on the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s con­clu­sion that Rus­sia tried to in­ter­fere in the elec­tion to help the Repub­li­can Trump beat Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Trump was in Hanoi for a brief state visit. His visit to the Philip­pines later for a pair of sum­mits will close out his trip.

Trump and Putin did not have a for­mal meet­ing while they were in Viet­nam for the Asia-Pa­cific Econ- omic Co-op­er­a­tion sum­mit, but the two spoke in­for­mally sev­eral times and reached an agree­ment on a num­ber of prin­ci­ples for the fu­ture of war-torn Syria.

Trump made clear that the is­sue of Rus­sian med­dling in the elec­tion hov­ers over the lead­ers’ re­la­tion­ship and said it jeop­ar­dised their abil­ity to work to­gether on is­sues in­clud­ing North Korea’s es­ca­lat­ing nu­clear pro­gramme and the deadly con­flict in Syria.

‘‘Hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia’s a great, great thing. And this ar­ti­fi­cial Demo­cratic hit job gets in the way,’' Trump told re­porters. ‘‘Peo­ple will die be­cause of it.’'

Trump danced around the ques­tion of whether he be­lieved Putin’s de­nials, telling re­porters that press­ing the is­sue would have ac­com­plished lit­tle. ‘‘Well, look, I can’t stand there and ar­gue with him,’' Trump said. ‘‘I’d rather have him get out of Syria, to be hon­est with you. I’d rather have him, you know, work with him on the Ukraine than stand­ing and ar­gu­ing about whether or not - ‘cause that whole thing was set up by the Democrats.’'

Mul­ti­ple US in­tel­li­gence agencies have con­cluded that Moscow med­dled in the 2016 elec­tion to try to help Trump win. But Trump called the for­mer heads of those agencies ‘‘po­lit­i­cal hacks’' and ar­gued there was plenty of rea­son to be sus­pi­cious of their find­ings.

The com­ments made clear that Trump still does not take the med­dling se­ri­ously and sees lit­tle ben­e­fit in pun­ish­ing a na­tion ac­cused of un­der­min­ing the most fun­da­men­tal tenet of Amer­i­can democ­racy: free and fair elec­tions. They also sug­gest that Trump is un­likely to work ag­gres­sively to try to pre­vent fu­ture med­dling de­spite re­peated warn­ings from se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials that Rus­sia is likely to try to in­ter­fere again.

Mean­while, a spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion of po­ten­tial col­lu­sion be­tween Moscow and Trump cam­paign aides so far has re­sulted in two in­dict­ments for fi­nan­cial and other crimes un­re­lated to the cam­paign, as well as a guilty plea. Con­gres­sional com­mit­tees have also been in­ter­view­ing cam­paign and White House staff.

‘‘Trump really raised the topic of so-called in­ter­fer­ence in US elec­tions,’' Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by Rus­sian news agencies as telling re­porters. ‘‘Putin cat­e­gor­i­cally re­jected even the hy­po­thet­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity that Rus­sia could have in some way in­ter­fered in the US elec­toral process.’'

Ear­lier, the Krem­lin is­sued a state­ment say­ing the lead­ers had reached agree­ment on a num­ber of prin­ci­ples for the fu­ture of civil war-torn Syria now that the Is­lamic State group has largely been pushed out. Among the agree­ments’ key points, ac­cord­ing to the Rus­sians, were an af­fir­ma­tion of de-es­ca­la­tion zones, a sys­tem to pre­vent dan­ger­ous in­ci­dents be­tween Amer­i­can and Rus­sian forces, and a com­mit­ment to a peace­ful so­lu­tion gov­erned by a Geneva peace process.

The Krem­lin quickly pro­moted the agree­ment as the White House stayed si­lent. Trump told re­porters that the deal was reached ‘‘very quickly’' and that it would save ‘‘tremen­dous num­bers of lives.’' And he praised his re­la­tion­ship with Putin, say­ing the two ‘‘seem to have a very good feel­ing for each other and a good re­la­tion­ship, con­sid­er­ing we don’t know each other well.’'

Video from the sum­mit in the sea­side city of Danang, Viet­nam, showed Trump and Putin shak­ing hands and chat­ting, in­clud­ing dur­ing the world lead­ers’ tra­di­tional group photo. The two walked to­gether down a path to the photo site, con­vers­ing ami­ably, with Trump punc­tu­at­ing his thoughts with hand ges­tures and Putin smil­ing. Jour­nal­ists trav­el­ling with Trump were not granted ac­cess to any of the Apec events he par­tic­i­pated in. - AP

PHOTO: REUTERS

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin talk dur­ing the fam­ily photo ses­sion at the Apec sum­mit in Danang, Viet­nam.

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