President Trump on Monday stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and rejected the findings of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election, drawing bipartisan blowback from lawmakers dismayed by his performance on the world stage.
At a joint press conference after their summit in Helsinki, Mr. Trump declined to publicly rebuke Mr. Putin for election hacking and failed to admonish Russia’s invasion of Crimea, poisoning of opponents on British soil and fueling bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria.
The White House said many of the topics were addressed behind closed doors.
“My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” said Mr. Trump. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia.”
He blamed both the U.S. and Russia for conflicts between the two countries and specifically pointed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for poisoning the relationship.
The summit was held just days after Mr. Mueller’s team handed up indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking email at the Democratic National Committee and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
Democrats and Republicans called on the president to pressure Mr. Putin to extradite the 12 intelligence officers.
Mr. Putin had another idea. He advised Mr. Mueller to formally ask Moscow to detain and interrogate the indicted spies.
“We want to hold a questioning of these individuals who he believes are privy to some crimes,” said Mr. Putin. “And our law enforcement are perfectly able to do this questioning and send the appropriate materials to the United States.”
As an alternative, he offered to meet Mr. Mueller halfway and allow him to go to Russia to conduct the interviews.
“Options abound,” said Mr. Putin.
By siding with Mr. Putin, the president drew fire from both sides of the political divide in Washington.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Putin was the “real victor” at the summit.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Trump’s conduct was “a historic failure of leadership that will have lasting consequences for national and global security.”
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic candidate for president in 2020, said Mr. Trump failed to stand up for America.
“He embraced our No. 1 adversary, blamed America rather than Russian aggression for the deterioration in our bilateral relations, trashed his own justice department and put Putin’s word above that of our own intelligence community whose leaders he appointed,” he said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said there is “no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, called the press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“Everyone who has dealt with Putin understands fully that the best way to deal with him is through strength,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News. “I just felt like the president’s comments made us look as a nation more like a pushover.”
Mr. Coats released a statement reiterating the findings of Russian interference in the election.
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. 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.
As he flew home aboard Air Force One, Mr. Trump tweeted 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! #HELSINKI2018,” he wrote.
Neither the intelligence community nor the special counsel has called into question the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Most of the indictments in the Mueller investigation have been against Russians, including the 12 intelligence agents and 13 Russians who worked in a St. Petersburg “bot farm,” which flooded social media with content designed to sow divisions among Americans.
In all, 26 Russians, three Russian companies, a California man and a lawyer in London have been indicted. Despite winning guilty pleas from five people, including three former Trump campaign officials, none of charges nor guilty pleas implicated the Trump campaign in collusion with Russia.
He said the investigation put “a cloud” over his presidency and called it “a disaster for our country.”
“There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it,” he declared, displaying his sensitivity to the implication that Russia’s interference invalidated his election victory.
For months after the election, Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists claimed Mr. Trump’s win was illegitimate. But those charges largely subsided in the newly two years since the election.
“That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily,” Mr. Trump said in Helsinki. “It’s a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it. People know that, people understand it. But the main thing — and we discussed this also — zero collusion.”
Mr. Trump questioned why the FBI did not seize the DNC email server as part of the investigation and why Mrs. Clinton’s 33,000 missing emails from her tenure as secretary of state were never recovered.
Federal agents have said that a copy of the DNC server was examined. They also shot down theories that the DNC server was missing.
Mrs. Clinton, who broke national security rules by using a private email account and private server as secretary of state, claimed to have permanently erased 33,000 emails that she said were private in nature. FBI investigators never recovered the emails.
Mr. Putin said he reiterated to the president, “The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere” in U.S. elections.
“Yes, I did,” he told reporters. “Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now; however, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Putin said the summit was a first step toward “restoring a responsible level of trust.”
Scolding critics who called for Mr. Trump to cancel the summit because of the indictments, the president said he made the right decision.
“Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, to refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything,” he said. “As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics, or the media or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct.”
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.