Danang, Vietnam: President Donald Trump said he believed President Vladimir Putin when he denied accusations that Russia meddled in last year’s US election, despite US intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.
Trump made the comment after he and Putin met briefly at a summit in Vietnam on Saturday and agreed on a joint statement supporting a political solution for Syria, now in its seventh year of civil war.
It was the first encounter of the two leaders since July and came during a low in US-Russia relations and at a time when Trump is haunted by an investigation into accusations that Putin influenced the election that brought him to the White House.
Putin reiterated the denials of interference, Trump said.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that, when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the resort of Danang.
“I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump said.
Trump has called allegations of campaign collusion with Moscow a hoax. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is conducting a probe that has led to charges against Trump‘s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates.
US intelligence agencies have also concluded Russians interfered to tip the election in Trump‘s favour through hacking and releasing emails to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and spreading social media propaganda.
On Saturday, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said Trump has been informed of the conclusions showing Russia’s meddling.
“President Trump was presented with clear and indisputable evidence that Russia interfered in the election.” Clapper told Reuters. Clapper was the national intelligence director when his office in January released the conclusion reached by the CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US presidential election told Reuters.
“The fact that the President would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable,” Clapper said.
Russia has repeatedly denied meddling.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, took Trump to task over his comments about Putin, using the “America First” phrase that Trump invoked at the APEC summit in laying out his trade priorities.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” McCain said in a statement. Putin is a former KGB officer and ex-head of Russia’s FSB security service.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the US House of Representatives intelligence committee, which is investigating the issue, accused Trump of siding with Putin over US intelligence agencies.
“The President fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail,” Schiff said in a statement.
In Danang, Putin told reporters that an alleged link between Manafort and Russia was fabricated by Trump‘s opponents.
Putin dismissed suggestions Russia influenced the elections through political advertising. Tech companies, including Facebook, have said some Russian-bought political content spread on their platforms around the time.
“There is no confirmation of our mass media meddling in election campaigns – and there can’t be any,” Putin said.