President Trump said Saturday he believes Vladimir Putin’s denials about Moscow meddling in the U.S. presidential election, calling claims to the contrary politically motivated “hit job(s)” that are putting lives at risk.
“He says he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump said aboard Air Force One. “Every time he sees me, he said: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that he means it.”
While Trump and Putin did not have a formal meeting while the pair were in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation economic summit, they did speak on a variety of topics throughout the day, according to the President.
But the specter of Putin playing a role in nefarious efforts to influence the U.S. election hampered their dialogue, Trump said.
Trump, who has often called for warmer relations with Russia, was clearly frustrated, telling reporters that Putin is “insulted” by the accusations.
“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,” Trump said of his Russian counterpart. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang on Saturday.
The comments were quickly condemned by critics and led to blistering rebukes from lawmakers.
“You know who else is insulted by it, Mr. President? The American people,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, tweeted. “You believe a foreign adversary over your own intelligence agencies.”
Fellow California Democrat Ted Lieu called Trump comments into question.
“I have seen the classified information on Russian hacking. @realDonaldTrump has received classified briefings. I can tell you that @POTUS is LYING. Trump knows the Kremlin hacked America last year,” he said.
U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly stood by the assessment that the Kremlin engaged in a concerted effort to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
The President on Saturday laughed off that belief and lampooned the former leaders of three top U.S. intelligence agencies.
Donald Trump in the White House
He placed Putin’s word above that of former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and fired FBI director James Comey.
“I mean, give me a break — they’re political hacks,” Trump said. “You have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar, and he’s proven to be a leaker, so you look at that. And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Mike Pompeo, “stands by” the intelligence community’s report that concluded Russia was involved in attempts to influence the election.
“The director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 intelligence community assessment entitled: ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.’ The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement.
Trump’s comments come just two weeks after Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed a plea deal with George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. Papadopoulos had repeated contacts with Russians who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent. He also urged then candidate Trump to meet with Putin, according to court papers.
Mueller’s investigation of potential collusion between Moscow and the President’s campaign aides has also resulted in two indictments for financial and other crimes unrelated to the election.
President Trump met with mixed reactions in South Korea
Trump called the probe a “fake barrier” put in place by Democrats. He said that it is hurting the United States’ ability to have a relationship with Russia, a distraction that is jeopardizing discussions on North Korea, Ukraine, Syria and is putting lives at stake.
“People will die because of it,” Trump declared.
In a bizarre twist, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, told CNN that election meddling did not come up when the two leaders met.
The Kremlin released a statement Saturday saying that the pair reached agreement on Syria, including de-escalation zones, a system to prevent incidents between American and Russian forces and a commitment to a peaceful solution governed by a Geneva peace process.
The pair did not have a chance to discuss efforts to deescalate tensions with North Korea, according to Trump.
But the President again sang Putin’s praises when the topic was raised by reporters.
“Having a relationship with Russia would be a great thing, especially as it relates to North Korea,” he said. “It would take a lot of danger out of this world. It’s a dangerous time — this isn’t small stuff.”