‘You should ask him’

White House nei­ther con­firms nor de­nies as­ser­tion about elec­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID FILIPOV david.filipov@wash­post.com damian.paletta@wash­post.com abby.phillip@wash­post.com Michael Birn­baum, Damian Paletta and Abby Phillip con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin tells re­porters Pres­i­dent Trump agreed with him that Rus­sia did not med­dle in the 2016 elec­tions.

hamburg — Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on Satur­day said that he thinks Pres­i­dent Trump agreed with his as­sur­ances that Moscow had not in­ter­fered in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial election, but sug­gested that re­porters ask the U.S. pres­i­dent what he thought.

The White House did not con­firm or deny Satur­day the sug­ges­tion that Trump, em­bat­tled at home by an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling, had agreed with the Krem­lin leader, who U.S. in­tel­li­gence agencies al­lege over­saw a hack­ing and dis­in­for­ma­tion ef­fort.

Putin on Satur­day said Trump “asked many ques­tions” about Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence dur­ing their closed-door talks on the side­lines of the Group of 20 sum­mit. The Rus­sian pres­i­dent said he had re­peated Moscow’s stance that “there were no grounds to be­lieve that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the U.S. elec­toral process.”

“It seemed to me that he took it into ac­count, and agreed,” Putin told re­porters on the side­lines of the G-20 sum­mit in Hamburg. The Rus­sian pres­i­dent added that “you should ask him.”

Asked on sev­eral oc­ca­sions dur­ing a brief­ing with re­porters on Air Force One whether they agreed with Rus­sian as­sess­ments of Trump’s re­ac­tion, White House of­fi­cials avoided giv­ing a direct an­swer. “I think Pres­i­dent Trump han­dled it bril­liantly,” Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin said re­peat­edly.

Putin’s re­count­ing of the dis­cus­sion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence was at odds with that of Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who at­tended the meet­ing. Speak­ing to re­porters Fri­day, Tiller­son said that “Pres­i­dent Putin de­nied such in­volve­ment,” but he did not say whether Trump ac­cepted that as­ser­tion. Rather, Tiller­son said Trump de­cided to move on be­cause Rus­sia would not ad­mit blame.

Tiller­son said, though, that the United States wasn’t dis­miss­ing Rus­sian re­spon­si­bil­ity, and that the two sides had agreed to or­ga­nize talks “re­gard­ing com­mit­ments of non­in­ter­fer­ence in the af­fairs of the United States and our demo­cratic process.”

Putin ex­panded on that Satur­day, say­ing that Rus­sia and the United States had agreed to work to­gether to “pre­vent in­ter­fer­ence in the do­mes­tic af­fairs of for­eign states, pri­mar­ily in Rus­sia and the U.S.” Putin has re­peat­edly said that the United States has been in­ter­fer­ing in Rus­sian elec­tions since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agencies have con­cluded that Rus­sia med­dled in the election to ben­e­fit Trump, but the pres­i­dent, un­will­ing to ac­knowl­edge al­le­ga­tions that cast a shadow on the le­git­i­macy of his election vic­tory, has re­fused to fully em­brace the find­ing.

As a re­sult, Trump’s pub­lic stance on the election — that “no­body re­ally knows for sure” who hacked a Demo­cratic Party email server — has echoed Putin’s own words.

It has also put the U.S. pres­i­dent at odds with mem­bers of his own ad­min­is­tra­tion. In an in­ter­view with CNN that will air Sun­day, Nikki Ha­ley, U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, said that “ev­ery­body knows that Rus­sia med­dled in our elec­tions.”

“Ev­ery­body knows that they’re not just med­dling in the United States’ election,” Ha­ley said in the in­ter­view on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’re do­ing this across mul­ti­ple con­ti­nents, and they’re do­ing this in a way that they’re try­ing to cause chaos within the coun­tries.”

Ger­man lead­ers have said that they are con­cerned that Rus­sia will try to sway their Septem­ber elec­tions in the same way U.S. in­tel­li­gence says it did in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial vote. Putin on Satur­day de­nied that, as well.

“We did not med­dle in the U.S. ei­ther; why would we need to cre­ate some prob­lems here, too? We have good re­la­tions with Ger­many. It is our big­gest trade and eco­nomic part­ner in Europe,” Putin said. He added that the Western me­dia are “con­stantly med­dling in Rus­sia’s do­mes­tic af­fairs, but Moscow is tak­ing this in its stride.”

Fri­day’s en­counter be­tween the lead­ers of the world’s nu­clear su­per­pow­ers had been highly an­tic­i­pated at a time of in­creased ten­sions over the in­creas­ingly as­sertive mil­i­tary role in Syria, where in June Rus­sia threat­ened to treat U.S. air­craft as tar­gets.

Some in Moscow had an­tic­i­pated that Trump’s pres­i­dency would of­fer a chance for a new era in U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions, but that mood had soured over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tough stand on Rus­sia’s sup­port for rebels in east­ern Ukraine, which led to new sanc­tions against Moscow in June.

Putin said Satur­day that “there is ev­ery rea­son to ex­pect that we will be able to re­store the level of in­ter­ac­tion that we need, at least par­tially.”

He also ob­served that “The tele­vi­sion Trump is very dif­fer­ent from the real man.”

“He is ab­so­lutely spe­cific, ad­e­quately per­ceives his in­ter­locu­tor, an­a­lyzes quickly, an­swers the ques­tions he is asked and [han­dles] which­ever sub­jects arise dur­ing a dis­cus­sion,” Putin said.

U.S. law­mak­ers from both par­ties had urged Trump to raise the election med­dling with Putin when the lead­ers met. Af­ter­ward, some wor­ried whether Trump had con­fronted Putin firmly enough. Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) dis­missed the out­come as “dis­grace­ful.”

“Pres­i­dent Trump had an obli­ga­tion to bring up Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in our election with Putin, but he has an equal obli­ga­tion to take the word of our In­tel­li­gence Com­mu­nity rather than that of the Rus­sian Pres­i­dent,” Schumer said in a state­ment.

Be­fore the meet­ing, an­a­lysts in both coun­tries had said that Putin was hop­ing for a sig­nal from Trump that Moscow and Wash­ing­ton could put aside past dif­fer­ences and forge a new re­la­tion­ship. In Moscow, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers were cel­e­brat­ing Fri­day night. Kon­stantin Kosachyov, chair­man of the for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee in the Rus­sian up­per house of par­lia­ment, called the talks “a break­through.”

Trump and Putin des­ig­nated top of­fi­cials to col­lab­o­rate on the res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict in Ukraine, Tiller­son said, and also reached a “de-es­ca­la­tion agree­ment” re­gard­ing a sec­tion of Syria near the cities of Daraa and Quneitra. Jor­dan was also part of that agree­ment.

Past cease-fires in Syria have not lasted long, and Tiller­son sug­gested he was skep­ti­cal that this cease-fire would en­dure.

Rus­sia and the United States con­tinue to dis­agree on the mat­ter of Rus­sia’s ally, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. Putin re­futed Tiller­son’s state­ment that As­sad has “no fu­ture” in Syr­ian pol­i­tics, say­ing Tiller­son is a “re­spected man” whom “we re­spect and love” but that “he is not a Syr­ian cit­i­zen,” and that As­sad’s fu­ture “will be de­cided by the Syr­ian peo­ple.”

Putin’s as­sertive for­eign pol­icy has earned him pos­i­tive marks at home, where Rus­sians give him con­sis­tently high marks for his lead­er­ship. But the Krem­lin is fac­ing the most wide­spread protests since Putin re­turned to the pres­i­dency in 2012. Although the pop­u­lar un­rest is not con­sid­ered enough of a threat to pre­vent him from win­ning a new six-year term next March, the dis­con­tent mars the Krem­lin’s ef­fort to por­tray Rus­sians as uni­fied in its sup­port for their pres­i­dent.

Rus­sian po­lice have been raid­ing cam­paign of­fices of the or­ga­nizer of the largest protests, anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Alexei Navalny, who has said he will run for pres­i­dent. On Satur­day, Navalny’s staff said 52 sup­port­ers had been ar­rested.

Putin never men­tions Navalny in pub­lic, and asked about that on Satur­day, he avoided men­tion­ing the ac­tivist again, say­ing he was not in­ter­ested in di­a­logue with any­one who of­fers no con­struc­tive ideas.

The two na­tions agreed to work to “pre­vent in­ter­fer­ence in the do­mes­tic af­fairs of for­eign states.” Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin

ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin waits for Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan to be­gin their talks at the Group of 20 sum­mit in Hamburg on Satur­day.

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