Trump careens off script on Russia after Putin meeting
DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump stayed on script for more than a week as he crisscrossed through Asia — and then Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up.
After chatting with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here, Trump abandoned the diplomatic tone the White House had carefully scripted for his five-country tour, once again contradicting the overwhelming consensus among current and former U.S. officials that the Russian leader manipulated the 2016 election.
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In a 26-minute question-and-answer session with reporters aboard Air Force One, the president managed to dismiss probes into whether his campaign colluded with Russia as an “artificial Democratic hit job,” said he believed Putin’s insistence that Russia did not attempt to meddle in the 2016 electon, and warned that the continued focus on Russian election meddling risks lives.
The president’s comments immediately reignited the politically volatile debate over Russia’s alleged efforts to propel Trump into the White House — and distracted from the administration’s Asia messaging.
“I am disturbed that our president believes a KGB agent and continues to refuse to believe the CIA. I can never remember a time in our history when this was so. I hope Trump’s national security team will be more forceful in convincing the president of the basic facts of Russia’s violation of our sovereignty last year,” said Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Despite the unified assessment of the U.S. intelligence community — including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser Thomas Bossert, who have said they support the conclusion that Russian sought to manipulate the election — Trump said he takes the Russian president at his word when he denies directing the influence campaign.
“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 said. ”But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth. Don’t forget. All he said was he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Trump dismissed the meddling allegations as driven by Democrats, warning that the heavy focus on the issue threatens the United States’ ability to partner with Russia on key issues. He asserted that the allegations could fray the U.S.-Russia relationship so badly that the country could be less willing to cooperate on North Korea, Syria and other international crises — an outcome that would put lives at risk.
“This artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way and that’s a shame because people will die because of it,” he said. “And it’s a pure hit job.”
“Everybody knows there was no collusion,” he continued. “I think it’s a shame that something like this can destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries that are very important countries Russia could really help us.”
The president said Putin again denied that he had a role in the effort to influence the election during a few brief conversations that the two leaders had on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
“He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump said, adding that he and Putin, “have the potential to have a very good relationship.”