x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

Trump tries to have it both ways on Russia election meddling

The US president said he believes the assessment of America's intelligence agencies - but also the Russian president's sincerity on the issue

US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin talk during the 'family photo' shoot at the Apec Summit in Danang, Vietnam on November 11, 2017. Jorge Silva / Reuters
US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin talk during the 'family photo' shoot at the Apec Summit in Danang, Vietnam on November 11, 2017. Jorge Silva / Reuters

US president Donald Trump tried to have it both ways on Sunday on the issue of Russian interference in last year's presidential race, saying he believes both the US intelligence agencies when they say Moscow meddled and Russian president Vladimir Putin's sincerity in claiming that his country did not.

"I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Mr Trump said of Mr Putin at a news conference in Hanoi with Vietnam's president.

"As to whether I believe it, I'm with our agencies," Mr Trump said. "As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies."

The CIA and other US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help Mr Trump defeat his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. An examination of potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides led by special counsel Robert Mueller — under the supervision of the US justice department — has so far led to indictments against Mr Trump's former campaign chairman and another top aide for crimes unrelated to the campaign, and a guilty plea from a foreign policy adviser to Mr Trump.

Multiple congressional committees are also investigating.

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Mr Trump commented on the Russia election issue for the second straight day on Sunday, shortly before he arrived in the Philippines, the final stop on a five-country trip to Asia. In Manila, Mr Trump is slated to meet with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and attend a pair of international summits.

Mr Duterte has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups for overseeing a violent drug war involving extrajudicial killings. But Mr Trump has praised the Philippine president's handling of his nation's drug problems and was not expected to publicly challenge Mr Duterte on human rights.

Questions about whether Mr Trump believes the intelligence agencies' assessment of Russian election-meddling have trailed him since January, when he said for the first time that he accepted Moscow was behind the hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.

Mr Trump told reporters travelling with him to Hanoi on Saturday that Mr Putin had again vehemently denied the allegations. The two spoke during an economic conference in the Vietnamese city of Danang. Mr Trump danced around questions about whether he believed Mr Putin, but stressed the Russian president's denials.

"Every time he sees me, he says: 'I didn't do that.' And I believe — I really believe — that when he tells me that, he means it," Mr Trump said, arguing that it makes no sense for him to belabour the issue when Russia could help the United States on North Korea, Syria and other issues.

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Then on Sunday, Mr Trump said he believes that Mr Putin believes Russia was not involved.

"That's very important for somebody to believe," he said in Hanoi.

The US president also lashed out on Saturday at former heads of American intelligence agencies, claiming there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of their findings and dismissing them as "political hacks". In a tweet on Sunday, he bashed the "haters and fools" he said were questioning his efforts to improve relations with Russia, and accused critics of "playing politics" and hurting the US.

Mr Trump's comments on Saturday drew strong reactions from some US lawmakers.

Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said Mr Trump's faith in the Russian president's denial was "naive".

"There's nothing 'America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community," Mr McCain said, referring to Mr Putin's former career in Soviet intelligence.

He added that Mr Trump's faith in Mr Putin was "naive".

"Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart," he said.

In Hanoi on Sunday, Mr Trump also pointed to sanctions the US has imposed on Russia as punishment for election meddling.

"They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently," he said. "It's now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken."

Mr Trump was originally slated to depart Manila for Washington on Monday. He added a day to the schedule amid criticism that he would have missed the final summit.