Trump says Putin sin­cere in de­nial of Rus­sian med­dling

CRIT­ICS CALL THAT ‘UN­CON­SCIONABLE’ In­quiries hin­der­ing co­op­er­a­tion, U.S. pres­i­dent says

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN DEY­OUNG, ASH­LEY PARKER AND DAVID NAKA­MURA

Pres­i­dent Trump said that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had as­sured him again Satur­day that Rus­sia did not in­ter­fere in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and in­di­cated that he be­lieved Putin’s sin­cer­ity, draw­ing im­me­di­ate crit­i­cism from law­mak­ers and for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who as­sessed that the med­dling took place.

“I asked him again,” Trump said af­ter what he de­scribed as sev­eral brief, in­for­mal chats with Putin in Danang, Viet­nam, where they were at­tend­ing a re­gional con­fer­ence. “You can only ask so many times . . . He said he ab­so­lutely did not med­dle in our elec­tion. He did not do what they are say­ing he did.

“I re­ally be­lieve that when he tells me that, he means it . . . I think he’s very in­sulted, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told re­porters trav­el­ing with him aboard Air Force One from Danang to Hanoi, on the ninth day of a long Asia tour. Trump voiced sim­i­lar con­clu­sions af­ter his only pre­vi­ous meet­ing with Putin, last July in Ger­many.

Trump’s re­sponse to ques­tions about his con­ver­sa­tions with Putin was a jar­ring re­turn to the more in­su­lar pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of Wash­ing­ton af­ter more than a week of what has been a trip filled with pageantry and pledges of mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion, but few sub­stan­tive out­comes, be­tween Trump and Asian lead­ers.

Later, in a news con­fer­ence Sun­day in Hanoi with Viet­namese Pres­i­dent Tran Dai Quang, Trump ap­peared to be try­ing to parse his ear­lier re­marks, say­ing, “What I said is that I be­lieve [Putin] be­lieves that.

“As to whether I be­lieve it or not,” he said, “I’m with our [in­tel­li­gence] agen­cies, es­pe­cially as cur­rently con­sti­tuted.

“I want to be able . . . to get along with Rus­sia,” Trump said. “I’m not look­ing to stand and ar­gue with some­body when there are re­porters stand­ing all around.”

Re­porters were not per­mit­ted in­side the hall where the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion con­fer­ence was held in Danang.

In a tweet­storm Sun­day morn­ing, in which he also dis­par­aged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump con­tin­ued to bash crit­ics of his re­la­tion­ship with Moscow, call­ing them “haters and fools” who don’t un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia.

On Satur­day on Air Force One, Trump sug­gested that what he called the “ar­ti­fi­cial Demo­cratic hit job” of in­ves­ti­ga­tions of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia were some­how pre­vent­ing U.S.-Rus­sia co­op­er­a­tion on a range of is­sues, in­clud­ing North Korea. “It’s a shame,” he said, “be­cause peo­ple will die be­cause of it.”

Putin said in a news con­fer­ence af­ter speak­ing with Trump that he knew “ab­so­lutely noth­ing” about Rus­sian con­tacts with Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials and called re­ports that a cam­paign of­fi­cial met with his niece “bol­locks,” ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­preter.

“They can do what they want, look­ing for some sen­sa­tion,” Putin said of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “But there are no sen­sa­tions.”

On Satur­day, Trump de­scribed the for­mer top U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who con­cluded in Jan­uary that the tam­per­ing took place in­clud­ing for­mer na­tional in­tel­li­gence chief James R. Clap­per Jr. and for­mer CIA di­rec­tor John Bren­nan — as “po­lit­i­cal hacks.” He called for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James B. Comey, who tes­ti­fied to Congress that Trump asked him to drop an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his cam­paign’s con­nec­tions to Rus­sian of­fi­cials, a “liar” and a “leaker.”

Clap­per said in a state­ment that “the pres­i­dent was given clear and in­dis­putable ev­i­dence that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the elec­tion.” Bren­nan de­clined to com­ment. In a state­ment, the CIA said that Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo “stands by and has al­ways stood by the Jan­uary 2017 In­tel­li­gence Com­mu­nity as­sess­ment . . . with re­gard to Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling.” That po­si­tion, it said, “has not changed.” The as­sess­ment also con­cluded that Rus­sia had acted to pro­mote Trump’s vic­tory over Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton. Although Pom­peo said last month that in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had de­ter­mined that Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence had not al­tered the elec­toral out­come, the as­sess­ment did not ad­dress that question.

For­mer CIA di­rec­tor Michael V. Hay­den said he was so con­cerned by Trump’s state­ment that he con­tacted the agency to con­firm that it stood by the Jan­uary as­sess­ment. He de­scribed Trump’s re­marks as “egre­gious com­ments on the char­ac­ter of folks who have been pub­lic ser­vants . . . [and] the pub­lic should know that these guys are thor­ough­go­ing pro­fes­sion­als, and what the pres­i­dent left un­said is that the peo­ple he put into these jobs agree with the so-called hacks.”

Michael Morell, a for­mer act­ing di­rec­tor and deputy di­rec­tor of the CIA, said Trump was “bit­ing hook, line and sinker” the word of Putin, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who is a “trained liar and ma­nip­u­la­tor.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, one of the pan­els in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion, said he was left “com­pletely speech­less” by Trump’s will­ing— ness to take Putin’s word “over the con­clu­sions of our own com­bined in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment: “In­stead of crit­i­ciz­ing the Rus­sian leader for the au­dac­ity of his in­ter­fer­ence and de­nials, he at­tacked Di­rec­tors Bren­nan, Clap­per and Comey . . . But the Pres­i­dent fools no one. He un­der­stands that the Rus­sians in­ter­vened through the hack­ing and dump­ing of his op­po­nents emails, the fruits of which he ex­ploited time and again on the cam­paign trail.”

Sev­eral Repub­li­can mem­bers of the Se­nate and House in­tel­li­gence pan­els did not re­spond to re­quests to com­ment on Trump’s re­marks.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a state­ment that “there’s noth­ing ‘Amer­ica First’ about tak­ing the word of a KGB colonel over that of the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity . . . Vladimir Putin does not have Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests at heart. To be­lieve other­wise is not only naive but also places our na­tional se­cu­rity at risk.”

Trump’s lat­est com­ments on the sub­ject came as in­ves­ti­ga­tions of al­le­ga­tions that his cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia have moved into a new, more vis­i­ble and po­ten­tially con­se­quen­tial phase.

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III filed crim­i­nal charges two weeks ago against three peo­ple — in­clud­ing a for­mer Trump cam­paign chair­man and two low­er­level cam­paign ad­vis­ers — and more charges are expected.

Although Trump, his fam­ily mem­bers and close aides re­ject any sug­ges­tion of col­lu­sion, new ev­i­dence has emerged that peo­ple in Trump’s or­bit com­mu­ni­cated with Rus­sians dur­ing the cam­paign. Three congressional com­mit­tees in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mat­ter are fo­cused in part on a meet­ing that oc­curred in Trump Tower in June 2016, at­tended by Trump’s son Don­ald Trump Jr.; his son-in­law, Jared Kush­ner; and then-cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort, with a well-con­nected Rus­sian lawyer of­fer­ing neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion about Clin­ton.

In his news con­fer­ence, Putin said he and Trump “hardly know each other.” He de­scribed the U.S. pres­i­dent as “very pro­fes­sional, very friendly, he be­haves very ap­pro­pri­ately,” and added, “Un­for­tu­nately, we did not have enough time to get down to some more de­tails, be­cause we have many mat­ters to dis­cuss.”

The two lead­ers is­sued a joint state­ment pledg­ing to con­tinue their co­op­er­a­tion to de­feat the Is­lamic State in Syria, and their com­mit­ment to U.N.-bro­kered peace ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and op­po­nents fight­ing to oust him.

Putin also said that he and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, who held a long meet­ing at the fo­rum in Danang, had “sim­i­lar views” on var­i­ous is­sues, in­clud­ing North Korea. “We do not ac­cept the nu­clear sta­tus of that coun­try,” Putin said.

Trump said in his air­borne re­marks to re­porters that a Xi state­ment call­ing for de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of North Korea, which de­pends on China for its eco­nomic sur­vival, was a ma­jor step for­ward that “a lot of peo­ple . . . didn’t pick up.”

Rus­sia, Trump said, also could be “tremen­dously help­ful” on North Korea but was pre­vented by “this ar­ti­fi­cial Demo­crat bar­rier” of the elec­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Putin blamed the lack of a for­mal meet­ing with Trump at the con­fer­ence on the “fail­ure” of their teams, adding they would be “lec­tured” on the lapse.

Re­la­tions with the United States, Putin said, are “still in cri­sis,” even though Rus­sia is “say­ing that we are ready to turn that page over and go for­ward and look into the fu­ture.”

Putin noted that Rus­sia’s re­la­tions with China, a coun­try that he said would soon be “the big­gest econ­omy” in the world, are grow­ing stronger. The United States, he said, is los­ing out on prof­itable in­vest­ments in Rus­sia, pre­sum­ably be­cause of sanc­tions.

“If you don’t want to work,” Putin said, “there will be oth­ers. Your com­peti­tors will come and take your place.”

JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

From front left, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, Viet­namese Pres­i­dent Tran Dai Quang, In­done­sian Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo and Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, and from back left, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, Pres­i­dent Trump and Thai Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha pose Satur­day at the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion fo­rum in Danang, Viet­nam.

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