‘He said he didn’t meddle’: Trump talks with Putin about U.S. elections and Syria in brief interactions
HANOI — President Trump said Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin again denied that Moscow tampered in the U.S. presidential campaign last year.
The two men had brief conversations during a larger meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam, before Trump flew to Hanoi for a bilateral meeting Sunday with Vietnamese leaders.
Trump said that he had “two or three” brief conversations with Putin mostly centered on the war in Syria, but added that he pressed the Russian leader on Moscow’s role in attempting to interfere in the 2016 election.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said, answering questions in the press cabin on Air Force One. “I asked him again. 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.”
Trump said that he believed Putin was “sincere” in his denials, and that Putin seemed to find the question insulting. Suggesting that what he called the “artificial Democratic hit job” of investigations of his campaign were preventing U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues, including North Korea, Trump said that it is “a shame, because people will die because of it.”
In his own news conference after their talks, Putin said he knew “absolutely nothing” about contacts with Trump campaign officials, and called reports that a campaign official sought a meeting 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.”
Putin said he and Trump “hardly know each other,” but described the U.S. president as “very professional, very friendly, he behaves very appropriately. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to get down to some more details,” he said, “because we have many matters to discuss.”
He blamed the lack of a formal meeting between the two at the conference on the “failure” of their respective teams, and said they would be “lectured” on the lapse.
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.
Trump also described former FBI director James B. Comey, who testified to Congress that Trump asked him to drop an investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russian officials, as a proven “liar” and “leaker.” Trump called the former U.S. intelligence officials who concluded that the Russians tampered — including former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and former CIA director John Brennan — “political hacks.”
Clapper, Brennan and Comey, on behalf of the 17-agency intelligence community, issued a report in January describing an unprecedented Russian intelligence operation to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and help elect Trump.
The intelligence agencies have said that Russian hackers stole and made public thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee, also spread misinformation in an attempt to help Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump, however, has said he does not believe that Russia actively sought to help him.
The assessment sparked ongoing, separate investigations by Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director, of Russian interference in the campaign. Those inquiries include determining whether there was any collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.