HELSINKI (NBC) — At a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on foreign soil, President Donald Trump attacked fellow Americans — Democrats, special counsel Robert Mueller and members of the news media — for damaging U.S.-Russia relations by pursuing questions about Moscow’s efforts to help him win the presidency in 2016.
“There was no collusion at all,” Trump said here following a one-day summit. “It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”
NOTE: A live feed of the Trump-Putin summit in Finland. App, mobile users can tune in here.
“The probe is a disaster for our country. It’s kept us separated,” he added.
Trump didn’t just insult his domestic critics — he also suggested that Putin is more credible than his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who has accused Russia of undertaking an “unprecedented influence campaign” in 2016 and said that “warning lights are blinking red again” on Russian cyberattacks against the U.S. Last week, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials for disrupting the 2016 through computer hacking.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said when asked about Coats’s conclusions, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
“[Putin] just said it’s not Russia,” Trump also said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The broadsides against his countrymen were just one of the bizarre aspects of a press conference in which the Russian and American presidents glossed over the differences between the interests of their respective nations, preferring to shower each other with praise than to delve into complex issues of global significance, and Trump gave voice to a series of conspiracy theories about domestic politics.
But the sustained bashing of American institutions and individuals was extraordinary for a U.S. president in any setting, much less here in the shadow of Moscow.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, a Democrat and frequent Trump critic, wrote afterward on Twitter that Trump showed himself to be “wholly in the pocket of Putin” and that his action here “rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors'” — the Constitution’s phrase for impeachable offenses.
Asked whether he had wanted Trump to win the election and whether he had directed any officials to help make that happen, Putin responded in the affirmative. “Yes I did. Yes I did,” said the Russian leader, in an apparent answer to the first question. “Because he talked about bringing the Russian relationship back to normal.”
It was hard to find an issue on which Trump and Putin disagreed as they stood side by side at matching podiums. The major exception: Putin — though not Trump himself — said Monday that Trump “stands firmly” on the position that Russia should not have annexed Ukraine while “our view is different.” That is, they agreed to disagree, which is all Putin really needs to hold onto the territory that belonged to Ukraine before his 2014 incursion.
And it did not escape notice that their one-on-one session was held in a room at the presidential palace here called the “Hall of Mirrors.”
Asked about the indictment of Russian government hackers, Trump also advanced several conspiracy theories related to the election, including asking about the 33,000 Hillary Clinton emails he has long claimed are missing — the very emails he publicly asked Russia to hack before what Mueller says was an “after hours” Russian attack on accounts connected to Clinton’s personal office.
He threw in references to the whereabouts of a computer server at the Democratic National Committee and the activities of a former House Democratic staffer who some conspiracy theorists have alleged penetrated lawmakers’ computers.
Trump blamed the U.S. in part for the deterioration of the relationship between the two countries in recent years.
“I hold both countries responsible,” he said “I think that the United States has been foolish.”
The fireworks over the Russia probe overshadowed the two presidents’ report on what actually happened at their summit, which amounted to no public announcement of any concrete progress on the major issues confronting them.
Trump met with Putin one-on-one for more than two hours and in a session with aides present.
“I think it’s a good start,” Trump told reporters earlier after the private meeting ended, just ahead of a larger session that would include aides to both leaders. “A very good start for everybody.”
The items up for discussion, the president had said as he sat next to Putin in matching chairs at Finland’s presidential palace before the first meeting, included trade, military issues, the presidents’ relationships with their “mutual friend” Chinese President Xi Jinping and nuclear nonproliferation.
“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said. “I think the world wants to see us get along, we are the two great nuclear powers, we have 90 percent of the nuclear … that is a negative force.”
But he said nothing of the two issues that have most concerned European leaders and members of Congress: Putin’s incursions into Ukraine and his meddling with elections in democratic nations, including the 2016 U.S. election that made Trump president.
Putin landed in Helsinki around 6 a.m. ET, slightly later than expected, and made his way to the presidential palace. Trump arrived for the meeting a few minutes later.
There had originally been no real set agenda for the hastily arranged power chats, which were announced less than three weeks ago and for which Trump has declined to elaborate on any goals beyond simply meeting with Putin and raising the issues at hand.
With any deal-making to be done on the fly, some American experts on Russia are deeply concerned that gives Putin, who has been in power in Moscow for the last 18 years, the upper hand over Trump.
“He knows the details of these issues way better than Trump, or indeed almost any other head of state in the world,” Michael McFaul, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, wrote in The Washington Post. “That’s why the extended one-on-one meeting with Trump planned for the summit gives Putin a huge advantage.”
On two of the most pressing matters, Russia’s cyberattacks against the U.S. and Putin’s incursions into Ukraine, Trump has signaled repeatedly that he is not nearly as worried about them as are officials in his own administration, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and much of the American public.
“I will absolutely bring up meddling,” Trump said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May last week. But, knowing at the time that his Justice Department was about to announce indictments against a dozen Russian spies accused of staging cyberattacks against Democrats during the 2016 campaign, he referred to the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Moscow as a “rigged witch hunt.”
Before their meetings, Trump tried to set the tone early — and Russia tried to match it — on Twitter.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote.
“We agree,” the Russian Foreign Ministry responded as Putin made his way to the presidential palace in Helsinki.
And while U.S. officials say they will maintain sanctions against Russia for seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Trump himself hasn’t ruled out recognizing that annexation of territory that Putin believes is rightfully his.
“We’re going to have to see,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One late last month.
Anna-Liisa Heusala, a Russian Studies professor at the University of Helsinki, said Putin wants “actual recognition or de facto acceptance” of his military action in Ukraine, Syria and other regional hotspots and affirmation of his view of Russia as a “superpower, above international norms and law.”
“From Russia’s perspective, its actions in Ukraine and the Crimea, which it partially justified with humanitarian causes, were a demonstration of its strengthened role and ability to set boundaries for the actions of other parties when these are deemed to seriously threaten Russian national interests,” she said.
“As Russia categorically opposes the expansion of NATO near its border, it interprets that the annexing of the Crimea was also a defensive action due to the military importance of the area.”
Concerns about the Russian leader’s acumen, and the possibility of Trump’s faltering, cross the political spectrum.
Luke Coffey, director of the foreign policy center at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, wrote that Trump has an opportunity to stand strong with NATO and “press Putin” on Ukraine, Moscow’s backing of the regimes in Iran and Syria and attacks on elections in democratic nations.
“President Trump should go into this summit with his eyes wide open,” Coffey wrote. “Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has never shown that he can be a trusted partner of the United States. At almost every opportunity, he has pursued policies that undermine America’s national interests and those of its closest partners.”
Some veteran American foreign policy hands say that it is worthwhile for the U.S. to re-engage with Russia after years of deterioration in the relationship, several failed attempts to jump-start it and the resumption of an arms race between the two countries.
But there is also fear, amid the Russia investigation that has dogged Trump at home and boiling tension over NATO’s eastward expansion and Putin’s push to influence his western neighbors, that the one-on-one meeting could end up harming U.S. interests.
“I’m shaking my head so violently I have whiplash,” said Ellen Tauscher, who was undersecretary of State for arms control and international security during most of Obama’s first term.