In an astonishing news conference on Monday, President Trump, standing next to Vladimir Putin, rejected the overwhelming consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
“They said, ‘I think it is Russia.’ I have President Putin. He just said it is not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki after a two-hour private meeting with the Russian leader. “I will say this: I do not see any reason why it would be.”
The remarks capped one of the most bewildering performances by an American leader during a joint news conference with a foreign leader. Trump deflected direct questions about Russia's role in the 2016 elections, instead boasting about the margin of his election victory over Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee whom polls favored to win; reiterating his claim that the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s actions and possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia was a “witch hunt” directed at him; and asking why the FBI “never took the [hacked] server” belonging to the Democratic National Committee.
“I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I do not think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server,” he said, adding: “Where are those servers? They are missing. What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails, 30,000 emails .... just gone. In Russia they would not be gone so easily. It is a disgrace we cannot get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails. I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
The news conference capped a week of drama that led up to Monday’s summit meeting in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, between Trump and Putin. The meeting occurred just days after the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers who are alleged to have hacked emails and computers of senior Democratic party officials in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The indictments, which are part of Mueller’s investigation into Russian hacking of the election, led to calls mainly from Democratic lawmakers for Trump to cancel his summit meeting with Putin. But the U.S. president pressed ahead, reiterating his goal of improved relations with Russia. “Getting along with Russia is a good thing not a bad thing,” he said Monday ahead of his one-on-one meeting with Putin, who was seated beside him. That meeting was scheduled to last 45 minutes, but went on for more than two hours. Trump said they discussed a “wide range of critical issues,” including Russia’s alleged interference, but bemoaned the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations, which he had blamed earlier in the day on “U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Russia’s Foreign Ministry concurred with that assessment on Twitter, replying: “We agree.”
Trump’s apparent willingness to take Putin’s word on Russia’s alleged interference coincides with a decline in U.S. relations with its closest allies around the world. Trump has criticized Canada, Mexico, and Europe on trade, NATO on defense, the U.K. government on its Brexit plan, and Germany and Sweden on immigration and crime. European capitals, especially, will have watched Monday’s meeting and subsequent news conference closely. Trump’s meeting last week with NATO allies was marked for its rancor. He then called the EU a “foe” on trade, and criticized British Prime Minister Teresa May for her “soft” approach toward Brexit and suggested it may cost her a free-trade deal with the U.S. (He has since reversed himself.) Monday’s meeting with Putin was marked by far friendlier words.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Trump said at the news conference. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”