Trump declines to side with US intelligence over Putin

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(CNN) — US President Donald Trump, in a stunning rebuke of the US intelligence community, declined on Monday to endorse the US government’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible.

Instead, Trump — standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin — touted Putin’s vigorous denial and pivoted to complaining about the Democratic National Committee’s server and missing emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal account.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during a joint news conference after he spent about two hours in a room alone with Putin, save for a pair of interpreters.

Trump’s statements amounted to an unprecedented refusal by a US president to believe his own intelligence agencies over the word of a foreign adversary and drew swift condemnation from across the partisan divide.

His words signaled that he continues to equate the assessment of Russian election meddling with efforts to deligitimize his election, even though the US intelligence community made no such assessment.

The US President also hailed Putin’s offer for Russian law enforcement officials to interrogate the Russian agents indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller as “incredible,” an offer that would effectively give Russia oversight and influence of part of a US investigation into Russian state activities. Putin had also said the offer would be reciprocal.

Trump repeatedly equated US and Russian actions, saying he holds both the US and Russia responsible for the breakdown in the bilateral relationship and homed in on the effect of the special counsel’s probe, saying it — not Russian meddling — has “kept us (the US and Russia) apart.”

The US intelligence community — in a report compiled by the CIA, NSA, FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — concluded with “high confidence” that Russia interfered during the 2016 presidential campaign, aiming to help elect Trump and hurt Clinton.

Every current US intelligence chief who has testified on the matter has also backed the intelligence community’s assessment and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee also affirmed the assessment in a report earlier this month.

Trump had previously said he sided with his intelligence community’s assessment over Putin’s denials, but he has more frequently cast doubt on the assessments and repeatedly assailed Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Putin, for his part, reiterated his denial for the public, though he did admit for the first time that he wanted Trump to win the election.

“Russia has never interfered in and is not going to interfere in US internal affairs, including the elections,” Putin said during the news conference. “If there are any specific materials, if they are presented, we are ready to review them together.”

Trump, aboard Air Force One returning back to Washington, belatedly attempted to quell outrage over his earlier remarks saying he has confidence in his own intelligence officials.

“As I said today and many times before, “I have 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!” Trump tweeted.

But it was his own pick — Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence — who warned on Friday that “the warning lights are blinking red again” regarding Russian cyber interference. Coats then defended the US intelligence community’s assessment about the 2016 election in a statement Monday afternoon.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said.

Democrats and Republicans alike pushed back on Trump’s comments.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rarely rebukes Trump’s controversial statements, said “there is no question that Russia interfered in our elections” and called on Trump to recognize that Russia “is not our ally.”

“The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” Ryan said in a statement.

Other Republicans were even more critical, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker saying Trump’s comments “made us look like a pushover.”

John Brennan, the former CIA director and a career intelligence officer, called Trump’s comments “nothing short of treasonous.”

“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,’ ” Brennan tweeted. “It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

Meeting runs long

Trump and Putin blew past the 90 minutes they were scheduled to spend with only interpreters at their sides on Monday, just hours after the US President blamed US policy for the dismal state of relations between the two countries.

After their initial meeting, the two leaders brought in their top aides for an expanded bilateral meeting, the next step in their first official summit, and then concluded with a joint news conference.

Speaking to reporters, Trump again lambasted the special counsel’s investigation stemming from Russian interference in the 2016 election as “a disaster for our country.”

“I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us (the US and Russia) apart. I think it’s kept us separated,” Trump said.

The US President proclaimed in front of Putin that “there was no collusion” during the 2016 campaign and said he “beat Hillary Clinton easily.”

He added the Mueller probe has “had a negative impact on the relationship between the two nuclear powers.”

While Trump dove into specifics on US missteps, he did not list any malignant Russian activities responsible for the low point in the US-Russia relationship.

Instead he said he holds both the United States and Russia responsible for the breakdown in the relationship between the two countries and railed against the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

“I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” Trump said at the news conference in Helsinki, Finland.

“We should have, frankly, had this dialogue a long time ago. I think that we’re all to blame. I think that the United States has now stepped forward along with Russia,” Trump said, adding that he feels that the US and Russia have “both made some mistakes.”

Historic summit

Gathered at the Finnish presidential palace, a historic venue where previous US presidents have also gathered with their Russian and Soviet counterparts to tackle the complex bilateral relationship, Trump made clear at the outset that he hopes the meeting can help transform the relationship into an “extraordinary” one.

“I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly, we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” said Trump, who is hoping his personal touch can reverse the steep decline. “I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.”

But the highly anticipated meetings that had been minutely planned began with a sluggish start after the Russian President arrived late, setting the summit about 45 minutes back.

Putin is known for arriving late to important events — considered a power play by some observers — but this time his late arrival offered a role reversal for the US President, who has recently walked in late to meetings at the G7 and NATO summits.

In 2009 and 2012, Putin showed up about 40 and 45 minutes late for his meetings with then-President Barack Obama. But he kept German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych waiting about four hours each in 2014 and 2012, respectively. Even the Pope waited more than an hour for Putin to show up at the Vatican in 2015.

The two men walked into the palace’s Gothic Hall together, offering brief remarks and shaking hands for the cameras before the two men were left alone — save for a pair of interpreters — for the first meeting of the day.

Trump and Putin had set aside 90 minutes of solo time — just as Trump did with Kim Jong Un last month. But the two men spilled into overtime, inviting reporters for the start of their expanded bilateral meeting with top aides 2 hours and 11 minutes after their one-on-one meeting began. Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, White House chief of staff John Kelly, Fiona Hill, the top Russia expert at the National Security Council, and interpreter Marina Gross.

The lengthy tête-à-tête made Trump’s remarks ahead of the meeting all the more notable — and concerning to some.

Improving US-Russia ties

US officials have stressed the path to improving US-Russia ties runs through a clear-eyed understanding of Russian aggression and the root causes of discord in the relationship, but Trump is signaling a different course. He is holding previous US administrations and the Justice Department’s investigation stemming from Russian meddling in the 2016 election responsible.

“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 Monday morning ahead of the summit.

Trump was eager to have time alone with Putin to better personally assess him and develop a personal relationship, according to a US official, but he has also expressed anger at leaks from his meetings with foreign leaders and told aides he wanted to ensure his sensitive discussions with Putin remained secret.

The official also said that Trump doesn’t want aides — who may take a harder line on Russia — undercutting or interrupting him during his talks with Putin.

Just days earlier, Trump pointed to the “pure stupidity” and a “political problem” in the United States for making it “very hard to do something with Russia.”

“Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia, he loves Russia,’ ” Trump said during a joint news conference with his British counterpart.

Trump’s Monday morning tweet and his words and actions in the last week have only amplified concerns about his approach to Russia among US allies and lawmakers of both parties in Washington. During his swing through Brussels and the United Kingdom, Trump has repeatedly criticized US allies, called the European Union a “foe” and criticized the Obama administration rather than Russia in the wake of the Justice Department’s indictment of 12 Russian agents who allegedly worked to hack Democrats’ emails and computer networks during the 2016 election.

Ahead of his meeting with Putin — who is alleged to be behind the assassination of journalists and political dissidents — the US President also lashed out again at the news media on Sunday by branding journalists “the enemy of the people.”

(CNN) — After President Donald Trump’s stunning news conference Monday next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, members of Congress — including some within his own party — were quick to rebuke Trump’s performance on the world stage and Trump’s refusal to call Putin out for interfering in the US election.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, issued a blistering statement just minutes after the press conference wrapped.

Sasse rebuked Trump’s statement that he held “both countries responsible” for the deteriorated relationship between the United States and Russia.

“This is bizarre and flat-out wrong. The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression,” Sasse said in the statement. “When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican and constant critic of Trump’s, called Trump’s performance “shameful.”

“I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful,” tweeted Flake, who is not running for re-election.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who has had a close working relationship with Trump on issues related to health care and tax reform, tweeted that the summit was a “missed opportunity.”

“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections,” Graham tweeted. “This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”

Graham also warned Trump to leave a soccer ball, a gift from Putin, outside of the White House.

“If it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House,” Graham said.

Republicans show support for US intelligence community

Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger called Trump’s comments rebuking the US intelligence community assessment “a disservice,” though he did not mention Trump by name.

“The American people deserve the truth, & to disregard the legitimacy of our intelligence officials is a disservice to the men & women who serve this country. It’s time to wake up & face reality. #Putin is not our friend; he’s an enemy to our freedom,” Kinzinger tweeted.

The responses came after Trump declined to endorse the US intelligence community’s finding that the Russians. interfered in the 2016 US election.

Instead, Trump said Putin was “extremely strong and powerful” in his denial.

“I have confidence in both parties,” Trump said of Russia and the US intelligence community.

“I have real confidence in my intelligence people, but I must tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said.

A senior GOP congressional aide told CNN it’s “shocking he would disrespect our intel community on foreign soil. Next to Putin.”

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a key Trump ally, issued a statement backing up the intelligence community, but did not directly criticize the President.

“Russia interfered in the 2016 election,” Hatch said in a statement. “Our nation’s top intelligence agencies all agree on that point. From the President on down, we must do everything in our power to protect our democracy by securing future elections from foreign influence and interference, regardless of what Vladimir Putin or any other Russian operative says. I trust the good work of our intelligence and law enforcement personnel who have sworn to protect the United States of America from enemies foreign and domestic.”

New Jersey Republican Frank LoBiondo, who chairs the House CIA subcommittee, also said Trump missed an opportunity to grill Putin.

“I strongly disagree w/ statement that Russia did not meddle in 2016 election. With all I have seen on House Intel Comm & additional indictments of 12 Russian officers last week, it is clear Russia’s intentions. President Trump missed opportunity to hold Putin publicly accountable,” tweeted LoBiondo, who is not running for re-election.

Democrats outraged

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, tweeted “for the President to side with Putin over his own intelligence officials and blame the United States for Russia’s attack on our democracy is a complete disgrace.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said Trump embarrassed the US.

“Once again, @realDonaldTrump takes to the international stage to embarrass America, undermine our institutions, weaken our alliances, & embrace a dictator. Russia interfered in our elections & attacked our democracy. Putin must be held accountable — not rewarded. Disgraceful,” Warren tweeted.

Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, tweeted that someday the US would “turn the page on this dark chapter,” but that it would not be easy.

“This is a sad, shameful moment for our great nation. We will reclaim our values and reassert our global leadership. We’ll turn the page on this dark chapter. But it won’t happen on its own. We all must stand up—to side with U.S. law enforcement and to protect all Americans,” Kaine said.

The 21 most disturbing lines from Donald Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin

16 JUL 18 16:32 ET

(CNN) — After meeting one-on-one for the better part of two hours in Helsinki, Finland, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin made statements and then took a handful of questions from reporters. It was some kind of, um, performance, from Trump as he sought to cast Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election as a “both sides” issue even while running down the US intelligence community.

My initial take on what was a disastrous and shameful performance is here. But I also went through the transcript of the press conference and pulled out the 21 most newsworthy and noteworthy lines from Trump. They’re below.

1. “I’m here today to continue the proud tradition of bold American diplomacy. From the earliest days of our republic, American leaders have understood that diplomacy and engagement is preferable to conflict and hostility.”

“Bold” doesn’t mean what Trump appears to think it means. “Bold” is about taking strategic chances with a clear plan in mind. “Bold” is NOT about blaming America for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. “Bold” is NOT suggesting that Russia would have no reason to interfere in the election. “Bold” is NOT refusing to stand with your friends against your enemies.

2. “But our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”

This comment shows both Trump’s tremendous faith in his own charisma and personal appeal as well as his massive capacity for exaggeration. Remember that, according to the intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russia not only meddled in our election but did so to benefit Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. According to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Russia continues to conduct a cyber war against the US. Russia also invaded and annexed Crimea. And allegedly poisoned a former Russian spy on British soil. Despite all of that, Trump feels as though the relationship between these two massive — and adversarial — countries is now better because he sat in a room with Putin for a few hours.

So, OK.

3. “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”

This is Trump’s best line in the speech — a very nice piece of political rhetoric. Of course, when you go on to say that Russia and the US are equally to blame for Russia’s election interference, a nice piece of political rhetoric gets buried.

4. “I addressed directly with President Putin the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person. Spent a great deal of time talking about it. And President Putin may very well want to address it, and very strongly, because he feels very strongly about it, and he has an interesting idea.”

A sign of things to come in this press conference. Trump did, apparently, raise the allegations of election meddling. But he also seems to have taken Putin’s word (again) that Russia wasn’t involved. The “interesting idea”? Some sort of joint operation aimed at snuffing out cyber warfare between nations. Which is rich coming from Putin.

5. “Well actually, I called him a competitor. And a good competitor he is. And I think the word ‘competitor’ is a compliment.”

Trump actually corrects a Russian reporter here after the reporter said that Trump had referred to Putin as an “adversary.” Trump, here and elsewhere in this press conference (and in the run-up to it) seemed dead-set on making clear to Putin that he was a fan or, at least, a willing partner. Which is weird, because of that whole broadscale-meddling-in-our-election thing.

6. “But we have lots of sources now and the United States is much different than it was a number of years ago when we weren’t unable to extract what we could extract today. So today we’re number one in the world at that, and I think we’ll be out there competing very strongly.”

Uh, so, um, what?

7. “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. … And I think we’re all to blame.”

This is a line that will live in infamy. Trump, asked directly, “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular,” responded with this there’s-plenty-of-blame-to-go-around response. It’s a stunning response to what should be a very straightforward answer: Yes, I believe our intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia actively meddled in the election to help me, hurt Clinton and sow chaos. It’s hard to properly contextualize what it means when the American president, standing beside the Russian president, says that he can’t say whether Putin or the US intelligence apparatus is to be believed.

8. “There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. And people are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they’re going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.”

This is part of Trump’s extended answer on the question of whether he holds Russia accountable “for anything in particular” in regard to the election meddling. To the extent I could make any sense out of Trump’s defense here, it’s clearly wrong. He says that the special counsel’s office is “going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.” But already, Trump’s chief national security adviser in the campaign (Mike Flynn) and his deputy campaign chairman (Rick Gates) have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and are cooperating with Mueller’s probe. So…

9. “That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And, frankly, we beat her — and I’m not even saying from the standpoint — we won that race.”

The election ended 615 days ago. You know, from that standpoint.

10. “As you know, the whole concept of that came up perhaps a little bit before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election which, frankly, they should have been able to win, because the Electoral College is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans.”

So many things here:

a) This was a question for Putin about why Americans should believe his denials about Russia meddling. Trump interrupted to give Putin a helping hand.

b) The Justice Department began looking into possible Russia interference in the 2016 election during the summer of 2016 — and as a result of Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos telling an FBI informant that he was in contact with the Russians.

c) The Electoral College!!!

d) The election ended 615 days ago.

11. “We won the Electoral College by a lot: 306 to 223, I believe. And that was a well-fought — that was a well-fought battle. We did a great job.”

Sure, it makes total sense to talk about the specifics of your Electoral College victory while standing next to the president of Russia. This is fine! Also: Trump wants you to know that Trump did a great job in the 2016 campaign.

12. “But just to say it one time again — and I say it all the time — there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign.”

I’m not sure if Trump is doing this purposely or not but he is radically redefining what collusion means here. So it’s only collusion, according to Trump, if he and Putin conspired to help him get elected? Answer: No. That Trump and Putin didn’t even know one another is totally immaterial to the question of collusion. It’s uniquely possible that someone other than Trump within his campaign colluded with the Russians to help the billionaire businessman to get elected. That, of course, might not be the case too! But the fact that Trump didn’t even know Putin — according to Trump — doesn’t disprove there was collusion.

13. “And every time you hear all of these, you know, 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has nothing to do — and, frankly, they admit these are not people involved in the campaign.”

One word salad, coming up! If I had to guess, what Trump was going for here was his “13 Angry Democrats” attack on the Mueller probe. But that is a guess.

14. “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m President.”

“Brilliant campaign” > “great” campaign.

15. “One little thing I might add to that is the helping of people. Helping of people. Because you have such horrible — if you see — and I’ve seen reports, I’ve seen pictures, I’ve seen just about everything.”

“Richard Gere’s a real hero of mine. Sting. Sting would be another person who’s a hero. The music he’s created over the years, I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it, I respect that. I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I’m selling? No. Do I know what I’m doing today? No. But I’m here, and I’m gonna give it my best shot.” — Hansel.

16. “Well, our militaries do get along. In fact, our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders, for years.”

I bet you didn’t know that the Russian military and the US military get along really, really, ridiculously well. So now you do.

17. “So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server — haven’t they taken the server. Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?”

Trump’s answer came in response to this question from the Associated Press’ Jonathan Lemire: “Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. What — who — my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?”

The quote above is the first thing that Trump said after Lemire asked the question. And, yes, it is a total and complete non sequiturd. The question is whether Trump believes that Russia meddled in the election (as the intelligence community said they did) or Putin (who says, “very strongly,” that they didn’t.) None of that has anything at all to do with the hacked email server at the Democratic National Committee. Nothing. (Read thisfrom CNN’s Katelyn Polantz to understand the whole hacked server mess.)

18. “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Donald Trump believes the Russian president. And doesn’t believe the US intelligence community. it’s right there in those lines. Amazing. And terrifying.

19. “What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they?”

This is Trump still answering Lemire’s question! As to what ever happened to the “Pakistani gentleman:” His name is Imran Awan and he pleaded guilty earlier this month to making a false statement on a bank loan application. The government admitted as part of Awan’s plea deal that he never stole information from the DNC servers or the servers themselves. The President of the United States is engaging in InfoWars-level conspiracy theories here.

20. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

[narrator voice] He doesn’t have any sort of confidence in his “intelligence people.” If he did, he would believe their unanimous conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him and hurt Clinton. Instead, Trump chose to believe Putin.

21. “It would have been out long ago.”

Trump’s explanation for why Russia doesn’t have any “Kompromat” on him is that it hasn’t come out yet. Which is, um, an interesting way to dispute whether any such compromising information exists.

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