By Agence France-Presse
To outrage in Washington, President Donald Trump on Monday lent weight to Russian denials of meddling in US elections at his inaugural summit with Vladimir Putin, where the pair championed a fresh start in relations between the world’s leading nuclear powers.
The US and Russian presidents came out of their meeting in Helsinki expressing a desire to talk again 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 elections 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.
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.”
In fact, Trump welcomed a surprise offer by Putin to help in the investigation.
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.”
The tweet came after Trump’s seeming disavowal of his own FBI and intelligence agencies had immediately provoked a firestorm back home, even in his own party.
Senior Republican Senator John McCain said the press conference was “disgraceful” and a “low point” for the US presidency.
“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,” he said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats distanced himself from his boss in the White House, issuing a statement saying the US intelligence community’s judgement that Russia interfered in the 2016 election was “clear”.
And the top Democrat in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, said Trump was “putting himself over our country” by siding with Putin instead of his own officials.
“Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behaviour is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump,” he tweeted.
Putin, however, 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.
The two leaders appeared relaxed at the news conference, smiling on occasion, in contrast to their sombre demeanour at the start of the day.
Putin presented Trump with a World Cup football, a day after attending the final of the much-praised tournament in Moscow. Trump said he was happy to pass the ball on to his 12-year-old son Barron.
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’
But over breakfast with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, Trump declared that NATO “has never been stronger” and “never been more together” thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.
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.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Trump said, vowing the summit was “only the beginning”.
Putin said: “It is obvious to everyone that bilateral ties are going through a difficult period. However there are no objective reasons for these difficulties, the current tense atmosphere.”
Praising a “frank and business-like atmosphere,” the Russian leader said he considered the talks “very successful and useful”.
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.
Yet after the bad-tempered NATO summit and Trump’s trip to Britain, anxious European leaders will have been relieved if not much came out of the Helsinki meeting.
Those leaders are already fuming over Trump’s imposition of trade tariffs on various countries, including Russia.
European Union President Donald Tusk said Trump was guilty of “spreading fake news” with his remark about foes, and warned that the trade tensions could spiral into violent “conflict and chaos”.
“I hope this message reaches Helsinki.”