Russian President Vladimir Putin is steadfastly denying that his country meddled in the 2016 White House race, President Trump told reporters Saturday.
Trump and Putin briefly spoke several times while in Vietnam for a regional economic summit, as part of the U.S. president’s 12-day trip to Asia.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump afterward told reporters, aboard Air Force One. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”
Putin’s words contradict U.S. intelligence community claims that Russia indeed tried to influence the election’s outcome — amid evidence that suggests Russian operatives hacked emails from Democratic Party leaders and tried to sway U.S. voters by purchasing ads of social media.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” also said Trump, who deflected answering a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denial.
Congress and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller are each conducting investigations into whether Trump associates colluded with Russian in the 2016 campaign.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, slammed Trump for his comments.
“President Trump today stated that he believed Vladimir Putin is being sincere when he denies Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and reiterated that he hopes to cooperate with Russia in Syria,” McCain said Saturday. “There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community.”
McCain also said, “There’s no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous Assad regime, which remains the greatest obstacle to a political solution that would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”
Trump and Putin were in together in Danang, Vietnam, for the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. They have no plans to hold a formal meeting during Trump’s five-nation trip the concludes this weekend.
Trump told reporters on the flight from Danang to Hanoi that he and Putin largely discussed Syria in their “two or three very short conversations.”
At about the same time, the Kremlin issued a joint statement for both presidents about the countries’ “successful” and continuing efforts to defeat the Islamic State terror group, or ISIS, in Syria, the caliphate’s last stronghold.
In Syria’s years-long civil war, Putin has backed the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, while Western allies have supported his ousters.
“I would rather have him get out of Syria,” Trump told reporters. “If we had a relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing. In fact, it would be a great thing, not a bad thing.”
Trump declined to comment on the recent allegations about decades-old sexual misconduct by Roy Moore, the GOP nominee for a U.S Senate seat in Alabama. The president said that he hasn’t been following the news closely enough to offer an opinion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.