PARIS — President Trump on Thursday hailed the results of the Syrian cease-fire that he negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin and downplayed the furor over his son’s contact with a Russian lawyer as standard practice in the bare-knuckled world of presidential campaigns.
Standing beside French President Emmanuel Macron at a Paris news conference, Mr. Trump said most people in politics would have taken the meeting that his son Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a Russian lawyer who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton during last year’s election season.
“It’s called opposition research, or research into your opponent,” Mr. Trump said. “I think it’s a meeting that most people in politics probably would have taken. Politics is not the nicest business in the world, but it’s very standard where they have information and you take the information. In the case of Don, he listened.”
The latest furor over Russian election interference followed Mr. Trump to France, where he arrived with first lady Melania Trump early Thursday for security meetings with Mr. Macron and for Bastille Day celebrations on Friday.
Protesters angry about Mr. Trump’s visit set up a symbolic “No Trump Zone” in the city as part of what activists say will be a series of anti-Trump rallies. About 250 demonstrators gathered Thursday night in the Place de la Republique, a notorious gathering point for leftist demonstrators in the French capital, to establish the ad hoc “zone” with speeches and signs railing against Mr. Trump, his polices and key members of his administration.
Mr. Macron, who has clashed with Mr. Trump over the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, took the unusual step of justifying his invitation to the U.S. president at the press conference. He said the U.S. and France are historic allies whose cooperation on terrorism and other security issues is crucial in the years ahead.
“I believe that this is very much at the heart of the historic alliance between our two countries, and which fully justifies the presence of President Trump today and tomorrow in Paris,” Mr. Macron said.
The French president said he respects Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the climate agreement, based on his campaign promise last year, and that the move won’t affect his working relationship with the U.S. president on a broad range of issues, including the war in Syria and counterterrorism operations.
Citing a similar need to move beyond the Russia controversy, Mr. Trump pointed to the 5-day-old cease-fire in a section of Syria as a positive result of his first meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“While five days doesn’t sound like a long period of time, in terms of a cease-fire in Syria, that’s a very long period of time,” Mr. Trump said. “And that was a result of having communication with a country. During that five-day period, a lot of lives have been saved, a lot of people were not killed. No shots have been fired in a very, very dangerous part of the world, and this is one of the most dangerous parts of Syria itself.”
He said he hopes to build on the relationship with Mr. Putin to end more suffering in Syria.
“We’re working on a second cease-fire in a very rough part of Syria,” he said. “And if we get that, and a few more, all of a sudden you’re going to have no bullets being fired in Syria. And that would be a wonderful thing.”
Mr. Trump told reporters that he confronted Mr. Putin twice during their meeting last week about Russian election hacking, and he denied it twice.
“He said ‘absolutely not’ twice,” Mr. Trump said. “What do you do? End up in a fistfight with somebody? I’m not saying it wasn’t Russia. What I’m saying is that we have to protect ourselves no matter who it is. You know, China is very good at this. I hate to say it, North Korea is very good at this.”
The president has argued that Mr. Putin didn’t want him to become president because his military and energy policies are making the U.S. stronger than it would have been under Mrs. Clinton’s leadership.
“The next time I’m with Putin, I’m going to ask him: Who were you really for?” Mr. Trump said. “Because I can’t believe that he would have been for me.”
“I’ve made great deals. That’s what I do,” Mr. Trump said. “Why would I take sanctions off without getting anything?”
But Mr. Trump did say he plans to invite Mr. Putin to the White House when the time is right.
In an earlier conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One, Mr. Trump defended his son’s actions, saying Democrats would do — and have done — the same thing when offered damaging information about him.
“If somebody called and said, ‘Hey I have really some information on Donald Trump. You’re running against Donald Trump. Can I see you?’ I mean, how many people are not going to take the meeting?” Mr. Trump said.
Critics in both parties have said the younger Mr. Trump shouldn’t have accepted the offer from a foreign national, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he was told had information from the Russian government on Mrs. Clinton. Democrats in Congress are calling for further investigation, saying the revelation is proof that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the presidential election to benefit Mr. Trump.
The president said his son is a “great young man” and “a good boy.”
“He took a meeting with a Russian lawyer — not a government lawyer, but a Russian lawyer,” Mr. Trump said. “It was a short meeting as he told me — because I only heard about it two or three days ago. It lasted for a very short period, and nothing came of the meeting.”
Mr. Trump arrived in Paris on Thursday morning and toured the tomb of Napoleon ahead of security talks with the French president. Despite a generally celebratory tone in French media, the U.S. president’s visit is being portrayed by many here as awkward — given that he openly supported far-right leader Marine Le Pen against Mr. Macron during the recent French election.
Protesters say they will voice anger at Mr. Macron for inviting Mr. Trump. They also plan to slam Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord that President Obama reached with world leaders in 2015, as well as the Trump administration’s ban on refugees and travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority nations.
“I see what Trump stands for as anti-democratic. He’s either overtly racist and xenophobic or at least opening the doors to xenophobia and racism,” said one man, who held a sign at the “No Trump Zone” rally with the message, “Ban the Islamophobic travel ban and by the way ban Bannon!” — a reference to chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.
While they were demonstrating, Mr. Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were hosting the Trumps for a glittering dinner in a restaurant high above the city in the Eiffel Tower.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron also toured some of Paris‘ other famous settings, with a visit to the golden-domed Invalides monument followed by meetings at the presidential palace. Mr. Trump also marked the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I by visiting U.S. troops.
The president had praise for a city he had disparaged in recent months. When he announced his decision on the climate agreement, Mr. Trump said he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
He also had bemoaned several times in the past year that the city has been ruined by lax immigration policies that have led to terrorist attacks.
• Guy Taylor reported from Paris.
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