HELSINKI — Standing side by side with Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump refused Monday to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, undercutting the nation’s intelligence community and handing the autocrat a diplomatic victory.
Although he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and his own staff to take a tough line, Trump spoke not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Instead, Trump denounced the “stupidity” of his own country’s policies, especially the decision to investigate Russian interference in the election.
Just three days ago, the Justice Department announced an indictment of 12 Russian spies for hacking into Democratic Party computer networks.
Trump’s performance at a joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki stirred a wave of condemnation in the United States, including criticism from within his own Republican Party.
Asked if he believed the U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump said he was not convinced it was Moscow.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he said. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
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Even as Trump expressed no concern about Russia, the Justice Department announced new charges against a Russian woman, Mariia Butina, for conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent. Unlike the indictment last week, this one was not brought by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
An affidavit described Russia as “one of the leading state intelligence threats to U.S. interests,” and said Butina cultivated ties with an unnamed gun rights organization and a political party, which appeared to be the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party. At one point she mentioned opening “a back channel of communication” between the two countries.
After Trump’s remarks, Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence, promptly made clear he did not share the president’s view.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Hours after the Helsinki summit, Trump tweeted: “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!”
GOP Sen. John McCain called the meeting with Putin a “tragic mistake.” Other congressional Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were more critical than usual Monday.
Ryan, the top Republican in the House, was tempered in his remarks but insisted that Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
“Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.
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But Republican Sen. Rand Paul defended Trump, telling CNN: “Absolutely I’m with the president on this; the (U.S.) intelligence community was full of biased people.”
Before the summit even began, Trump blamed his own country for the deterioration in relations with Russia.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” he said on Twitter.
The Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted back: “We agree.”
Asked whether he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, Putin said: “Yes I did,” although he denied any interference.
Trump’s warm words for Russia were a marked contrast from the past week, when he repeatedly rebuked long-standing U.S. allies at a NATO summit and during a visit to Britain.
The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times contributed.