Trump believes Putin on Russia meddling and says Mueller may cost lives
Donald Trump said on Saturday he believes Vladmir Putin’s denials of Russian involvement in the manipulation of the 2016 presidential election.
After a brief meeting with the Russian leader on the margins of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Vietnam, Trump launched a tirade against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin.
The investigation could cost “millions and millions of lives”, Trump claimed, by hindering agreement with Moscow over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and a looming confrontation with North Korea.
The president’s remarks, made to reporters as Air Force One flew to Hanoi from Da Nang, represented his open disregard for the views of US intelligence agencies. They have concluded that Russia did interfere in multiple ways in the 2016 election, with the aim of helping Trump’s candidacy.
The president suggested he put more faith in Putin’s word.
“Every time he sees me he says ‘I didn’t do that’ and I really believe that when he tells me that,” Trump said. “He really seems to be insulted by it and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he has nothing to do with that.”
The president described the investigation led by Mueller, a former FBI director appointed by Trump’s own justice department, as “Democrat-inspired” and a “hit job”.
Trump also claimed the investigation was preventing a normalisation of relations with Putin and therefore could cost countless lives around the world. He suggested Russia was not helping more to persuade Pyongyang to disarm “because of the lack of the relationship that we have with Russia, because of this artificial thing that’s happening with this Democratic-inspired thing”.
“I think [Putin] is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country. Because again, if we had a relationship with Russia, North Korea which is our single biggest problem right now, it would help a lot,” he said.
“You know you are talking about millions and millions of lives,” Trump said, adding that good relations with Moscow were also vital to resolving other conflicts.
“When we can save many, many, many lives by making a deal with Russia having to do with Syria, and then ultimately getting Syria solved, and getting Ukraine solved, and doing other things, having a good relationship with Russia is a great, great thing. And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way. It gets in the way. And that’s a shame. Because people will die because of it, and it’s a pure hit job, and it’s artificially induced and that’s shame.”
After Trump’s comments, Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, posted a tweet saying current CIA leadership agreed with the general intelligence community assessment about Russian interference in the election.
“CIA just told me: the [director] stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” he wrote. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.
Trump met Putin briefly on three occasions at Da Nang, having scheduled no formal meetings with him during the summit. The two exchanged a jovial handshake at the gala dinner on Friday and stood next to one another in a “family photo” of leaders on Saturday.
The US press pool including photographers were blocked from covering the day’s events, including the Trump-Putin meetings. Only Fox News and the official White House photographer were granted access.
Putin dismissed accusations Moscow meddled in the US election as “fantasies” intended to undermine Trump. “Everything about the so-called Russian dossier in the US is a manifestation of continuing domestic political struggle,” he said.
Putin was asked if he had followed the mounting investigation into alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russians, including a woman who claimed to be Putin’s niece.
“Regarding some sort of connections of my relatives with members of the administration or some officials,” he said, “I only found out about that yesterday from [his spokesman Dmitry] Peskov.”
He also said: “I don’t know anything about [the investigation]. I think these are some sort of fantasies.”
The two leaders produced a joint statement on Syria, restating their determination to defeat Islamic State and their desire for a United Nations-brokered solution.
“It’s going to save tremendous numbers of lives and we did it very quickly, we agreed very quickly,” Trump said.
The statement lists longstanding areas of agreement between the US and Russia on the importance of reviving mostly dormant UN-mediated negotiations known as the Geneva process, which envisages constitutional reform and free elections. In the past, Washington has disagreed with Moscow on how the process should be carried out and what role Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would play.
Assad’s forces, with Russian and Iranian support, have been gaining ground. The Syrian president has consequently shown little real interest in a peace deal. Asked if Russia would be able to bring Assad to the table, a state department official, quoted on CNN, said: “We’re going to be testing that, we’re going to find out.”
Trump renewed his assault on the Mueller investigation at a time when it is making significant advances, each time a step closer to the president. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and a senior fundraiser have been indicted for money laundering and conspiring to defraud the authorities.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is under investigation. His lawyer on Friday denied a report that he had negotiations with Turkish representatives about kidnapping a dissident cleric living in the US.
A former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to perjury about his contacts with Russian surrogates and officials. Although he personally announced Papadopoulos’s hiring in March 2016, describing him as “an excellent guy”, since the guilty plea was made public the president has said he was a “young, low-level volunteer” who “few people knew”.
However, court papers show Papadopoulos was in frequent contact with senior campaign staff, mostly about plans to bring Trump and Putin together. He met a UK foreign office minister, Tobias Ellwood, at the UN in September 2016. The New York Times reported on Saturday that Papadopoulos helped edit a major foreign policy speech in April of that year, and that one of the officials he was in touch with was Stephen Miller, still one of Trump’s closest advisers.