President Donald Trump said today that Russia's Vladimir Putin again denied interfering in the 2016 US elections. But Trump declined to say whether he believed the Russian leader.
"He says he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on the trip to Hanoi, Vietnam. "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."
Trump and Putin did not have a formal meeting while they were in Vietnam for an economic summit, but the two spoke informally several times and reached agreement on a number of principles for the future of war-torn Syria.
But Trump made clear that the issue of Russian meddling in the election hovers over the leaders' relationship, Putin is "insulted" by the accusation, Trump said.
In a blistering partisan attack, Trump accused Democrats of using the election issue to create a barrier between the US and Russia as the nations work on crises in Syria and Ukraine.
"Having a good relationship with Russia's a great, great thing. And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way," Trump told reporters, once again casting doubt on the US intelligence community's conclusion that Russia did try to interfere in the election. "People will die because of it."
Trump's suggestion that he may believe Putin over his own nation's intelligence community is certain to re-ignite the firestorm over the election meddling. Meanwhile, a special counsel investigation of potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides so far has resulted in two indictments for financial and other crimes unrelated to the campaign, as well as a guilty plea.
Trump said the probe into the election hacking was a "fake barrier" placed by Democrats that was hurting the United States' ability to have a relationship with Russia, a distraction that was putting lives at stake.
The Kremlin issued a statement today saying that the leaders met during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Denang and reached agreement on a number of principles for the future of the civil war-torn country now that the Islamic State group has largely been pushed out.
Among the agreements' key points, according to the Russians, were an affirmation of de-escalation zones, a system to prevent dangerous incidents between American and Russian forces, and a commitment to a peaceful solution governed by a Geneva peace process.
The Kremlin quickly promoted the agreement as the White House stayed silent. Trump told reporters that the deal was reached "very quickly" and that it would save a number of lives. And he praised his relationship with Putin, saying "We seem to have a very good feeling for each other and a good relationship, considering we don't know each other well."
Snippets of video of conference events have shown Trump and Putin shaking hands and chatting, including during the world leaders' traditional group photo. The two walked together down a path to the photo site, conversing amiably, with Trump punctuating his thoughts with hand gestures and Putin smiling.
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