Seeking to clarify comments he made hours before, President Trump said Sunday he believes Vladimir Putin sincerely believes Russia did not meddle in last year’s U.S. presidential election — but Trump himself said he sides with conclusions to the contrary by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership,” Trump said at a joint news conference with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, giving a rare (and grudging) endorsement to the idea that the Russians sought to interfere with last year’s presidential vote.
Trump spoke the morning after causing a stir when he suggested to reporters that he believed Putin’s denials more than the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials that Russia did in fact intervene in the election via hacked emails and fake news postings on social media.
That interference is the subject of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and various congressional committees. They are also looking at possible links between Russians and Trump campaign associates, claims the president vehemently denies.
“I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it,” Trump said hours before his news conference, going on to trash former CIA Director John Brennan, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and ex-FBI Director James Comey, all of whom served during the Barack Obama administration.
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“They’re political hacks,” Trump said. “I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.”
Trump’s dismissal of Comey back in May is the subject of an obstruction of justice investigation by Mueller’s office; Comey has said he believes he was fired over his role supervising the Russia investigation.
In defending Putin, Trump said on Air Force One: “Every time he sees me he says ‘I didn’t do that’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Asked to clarify at the Hanoi news conference, Trump said of Putin: “I believe he believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.”
Sunday’s news conference followed Trump’s meetings with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam.
Trump also met with other Vietnamese leaders, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.
Later in the day, Trump heads to the Philippines for another Asia economic summit. He begins by attending a dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The Hanoi stop followed Trump’s attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, part of an Asia trip that has also included visits to Japan, South Korea, and China.
As he did at other stops, Trump protested that too many countries — presumably including Vietnam — take advantage of the United States on trade rules. Vietnam was to have been part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Trump withdrew the United States from the dozen-nation Pacific Rim trade deal.
Also as in other countries, Trump asked Vietnam to buy more American goods.
In his meetings with Vietnamese leaders, Trump also said he would work to help resolve disputes over China’s military expansion into the South China Sea.
“I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” he told his Vietnamese counterpart.
But Trump’s comments about Putin — whom he met on the sidelines of the APEC summit — overshadowed Asia news and drew criticism across the political spectrum.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent antagonist of Trump, invoked the president’s campaign slogan in criticizing the comments on Putin: “There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump “fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail.”
Defending his views at the Hanoi news conference, Trump said he wants to get along with Russia so that it can help with challenges like the Middle East and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. “Getting along with other nations is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said.
Some U.S. lawmakers said Putin doesn’t want to help the U.S. McCain, for example, protested the Syria statement that Putin and Trump put together over the weekend.
Saying Russia only wants to prop up the “murderous” Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, McCain said: “Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”