President Donald Trump refused to confront Vladimir Putin over meddling in the US election at their first face to face summit, publicly challenging the findings of the US intelligence community and triggering bipartisan outrage at home.
The US and Russian presidents came out of their meeting in Helsinki Monday expressing desire for a fresh start between the world’s leading nuclear powers and more talk on global challenges, after discussing an array of issues from Syria, Ukraine and China to trade tariffs and the size of their nuclear arsenals.
There were indications of an arrangement to work together and with Israel to support a ceasefire in southern Syria, suggesting that the US administration is backing off its demand that Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad step down.
If that is anathema to many in Washington, Trump’s apparent concessions to Putin over the election controversy drew stinging condemnation from across the political divide.
Standing alongside the Kremlin boss at a joint news conference, Trump acknowledged that his intelligence chiefs believe Russia hacked and leaked Democrats’ emails containing politically damaging information about his rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.
But, insisting he had won the race fair and square, the wealthy property tycoon said: “I have President Putin, he just said it is not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Friday’s US indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents exploded with embarrassing timing for Trump as he prepared to meet Putin. On Monday, officials said another Russian agent had been arrested for seeking to influence US politics.
But the US leader insisted that his counterpart had delivered a “powerful” denial of any Russian manipulation, and that the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller was proving a “disaster” for the United States.
In his own interview with Fox, Trump said he was “fascinated” by an offer from Putin for US agents to indirectly grill the indicted Russians by submitting their questions to Russian officials but said Mueller’s team “probably won’t want to go” to Moscow.
Trump again denied any collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin, while Putin insisted: “The Russian state has never interfered and is not planning to interfere in the USA’s internal affairs.”
As criticism mounted, Trump tweeted from Air Force One on his way home from Finland that he had “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people”.
“However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along.”
Angry criticism of his disavowal of his own intelligence agencies came even from within Trump’s Republican Party.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain was particularly scathing, saying: “Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American presidency.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats distanced himself from his boss, issuing a statement saying the US intelligence community’s judgment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election was “clear”.
But the top Democrat in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, tweeted that many Americans can only wonder if “the only possible explanation for this dangerous behaviour is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”
And former CIA director John Brennan said Trump’s behavior at the news conference “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”
Putin denied the notion that Russian spy bosses may hold compromising information on Trump, who in his previous business career oversaw the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.
“Please get this rubbish out of your heads,” the Russian leader said.
In a post-summit interview with Fox News, Putin said US-Russia relations should not be held “hostage” to “internal political games,” referring to the Mueller probe.
The two leaders appeared relaxed at the Helsinki news conference, smiling on occasion, in contrast to their sombre demeanour at the start of the day.
Trump, bent on forging a personal bond with the Kremlin chief despite the election allegations, went into the summit blaming the “stupidity” of his predecessors for plunging ties to their present low.
His manner towards Putin was also a contrast to the anger Trump flashed at NATO allies at a combative summit of the alliance in Brussels last week, which critics said would only hearten Putin.
‘Only the beginning’
A post-NATO trip to Britain, supposedly America’s partner in a “special relationship”, was riddled with controversy as well.
In Helsinki, however, Trump was determined to accentuate the positive, as was Putin.
The two leaders met one-on-one for more than two hours, with just their interpreters present, before they were joined by their national security teams.
Many in Washington were agog at Trump’s decision to sit alone with Putin, worried about what he might give away to the former KGB spymaster, after previously cosying up to the autocratic leaders of China and North Korea.
But Trump, convinced his unique brand of diplomacy can win over Putin, pressed ahead and looked forward to “having an extraordinary relationship” as the pair sat down to discuss global hotspots.
‘Foolishness and stupidity’
Trump began the day by firing a Twitter broadside at his domestic opponents, blaming the diplomatic chill on the election investigation.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted.
Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted in response: “We agree.”
In a weekend interview with CBS News, Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals.