Asked at a press conference after the Helsinki summit today whether he believes U.S. intelligence agencies or the Kremlin, President Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin made a “very powerful” denial of Moscow’s 2016 campaign influence operation and said he has “confidence in both parties.”
Putin also said that he wanted Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton in the election, while Trump blamed both the U.S. and Russia — and the Mueller probe, in particular — for deteriorating relations.
Putin presented Trump with a soccer ball at the press conference, declaring “now the ball is in your court.” Trump said he would give the ball to his son Barron, then tossed it to first lady Melania Trump in the front row.
The day began with a breakfast with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, at which Trump predicted “we’ll do just fine” at his bilateral meeting with Putin.
Putin arrived to the meeting 35 minutes late. He and Trump first went into a one-on-one meeting with only translators in the room; election meddling days after the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers by special counsel Robert Mueller was not included on the provided list of topics.
The White House said the one-on-one sit-down lasted for about two hours before the meetings opened up to a working lunch with the Russian delegation and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and National Security Council Director of Russian Affairs Fiona Hill.
At the opening of the joint press conference, Putin declared that “the Cold War is a thing of past, the era of acute ideological confrontation of the two countries is a thing of remote past, is a vestige of the past.”
“Today’s negotiations reflected our joint wish — our joint wish with President Trump to readdress this negative situation in the bilateral relationship,” he said. “I outlined first steps for improving this relationship, to restore the acceptable level of trust and going back to the previous level of interaction on all mutual interest issues.”
Putin said discussion topics included arms treaties, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, Syria, North Korea, Russia’s opposition to the U.S. withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and joint business investment opportunities.
Trump called it “direct, open, deeply productive dialogue” and said “our relationship has never been worse than it is now — however, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that.”
“During today’s meeting, 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,” he said.
Trump lauded Putin as a “good competitor.” He was asked about his morning tweet: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
“Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you — what would you consider them — that they are responsible for?” a reporter asked.
“Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office,” Trump replied. “And I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia, and we’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping — you have to do it, ultimately that’s probably the most important thing that we could be working on.”
“But I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the — the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated.”
Trump added that 2016 was “a clean campaign” and said the Mueller probe “has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries.”
“It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe,” he said.
Putin was asked, “Why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election, given the evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided? And will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a U.S. grand jury?”
“This is utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned,” Putin replied, adding, “Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us?”
For extradition, the Russian president said, “we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate, and that they would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence service of the United States, whom we believe are — who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia, and we have to — to request the presence of our law enforcement.”
Putin then accused Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital Management co-founder who led the Magnitsky Act human-rights sanctions against Russia after attorney Sergei Magnitsky was killed in Russian custody following his investigation into massive government fraud, of crimes.
“Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” a reporter asked.
“Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal,” Putin replied.
In one of the next questions, Trump was asked whether he believed Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies on election interference.
“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 responded. “…With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] 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,” he said. Coats said last week that there was “no question” about Russia’s cyberattacks and said they “continue their efforts to undermine our democracy.”
“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 added. “And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Putin said that the “final conclusion in this kind of a dispute can only be delivered by a trial, by the court, not by the executive, by the law enforcement.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the talks “magnificent” and “better than super” in a statement afterward.