Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday again denied interference by his government in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, while President Donald Trump said “both countries” share blame.
After a 90-minute closed-door meeting, the two leaders emerged from their summit in Helsinki, Finland, and addressed a broad range of issues. But it was the leaders’ answer on election meddling that is certain to draw the most attention. Trump’s seeming equivocation immediately set the president’s critics on fire.
In the joint news conference, Trump denied that the “so-called interference” in the election meddling came from Russia.
“And I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into the internal election processes,” Putin said.
Putin invited special counsel Robert Mueller to submit a formal request for Russian law enforcement officials to question 12 Russian agents indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury last week. He added that the representatives from Mueller’s team could be present for such questioning.
“Our law enforcement are perfectly able to do this questioning and send the appropriate materials to the United States,” he said.
Trump called it an “incredible offer” and declined to blame Russia squarely.
“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish,” he said. “I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think that we’re all to blame.”
Trump said the Mueller probe has been a “disaster for our country.” He said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has fingered Russia. The president added that he trusts his intelligence agencies but added that he could not be certain since the Democratic National Committee (DNC) declined to turn over its servers to the FBI after it had been hacked during the campaign.
“Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the offices of the Democratic National Committee?” he said. “I’ve been wondering that. I’ve asked that for months and months. And I’ve been tweeting it and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? … and what is the server saying?”
Trump also mentioned Imran Awan, a Pakistani-born information technology worker, who posed “an ongoing and serious risk to the House of Representatives,”according to congressional investigators. Awan pleaded guilty to bank fraud this month, although the Department of Justice (DOJ) directly contradicted the conclusions of congressional authorities.
Trump’s performance quickly drew bipartisan condemnation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Russia hawk who nonetheless has cultivated a working relationship with Trump, tweeted that he would check a soccer ball given to the president by Putin for listening devices.
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections,” Graham tweeted. “This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”
Graham called on Congress to hold hearings on the extent of cooperation between Russia and Syria regarding Iran against U.S. interests.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a fanatic Never-Trumper Republican who is retiring at the end of the year in the face of polls showing him with little re-election support, was much harsher.
“I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful,” he tweeted.
Not all Republicans bashed Trump. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told CNN that while Putin is an “evil man who has killed many people,” the United States must deal with Russia. He also pointed to hostility toward Trump shown by some FBI officials during the counterintelligence probe focusing on Russian meddling.
“For the president to cast doubt is not unreasonable,” he said.
In offering to let Mueller observe interrogation of Russia-based defendants, Putin demanded “reciprocity” from the United States. He referenced Hermitage Capital Management founder Bill Browder, who has led an international campaign to persuade countries to impose sanctions on those responsible for the 2009 death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison.
Putin said Browder made $1.5 billion in Russia and then refused to pay taxes. Police in Madrid, Spain, arrested him in May on a Russian warrant but released him about an hour later. Browder tweeted at the time that the Interpol general secretary had told Spanish authorities to ignore the arrest warrant.
Trump seemed aware of the reception his remarks would get. He repeated his contention on Twitter that the relationship between the two nations had never been worse.
“However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” he said. “Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, to refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything … I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”
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