By JONATHAN LEMIRE and JILL COLVIN, Associated Press
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — President Donald Trump tried to have it both ways Sunday on the issue of Russian interference in last year’s presidential race, saying he believes the U.S. intelligence agencies when they say Russia 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,” Trump said of Putin at a news conference in Hanoi with Vietnam’s president.
“As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies,” Trump said. “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. A special counsel’s examination of potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides so far has led to indictments against Trump’s former campaign chairman and another top aide for crimes unrelated to the campaign, and a guilty plea from a Trump foreign policy adviser.
Multiple congressional committees are also investigating.
Trump commented on the Russia election issue for the second straight day Sunday shortly before he arrived in the Philippines, the final stop on a five-country trip to Asia, to attend a pair of international summits. Trump and Duterte were seated together at a gala dinner Sunday in Manila celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sponsor of one of the summits. The two planned more formal talks on Monday.
Duterte has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups for overseeing a violent drug war complete with extrajudicial killings. Trump has praised Duterte’s handling of his nation’s drug problems and was not expected to publicly challenge Duterte on human rights.
Questions about whether Trump believes the assessment about Russian election-meddling have trailed him since January, when he said for the first time, shortly before taking office, that he accepted that Russia was behind the election-year hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.
Trump told reporters traveling with him to Hanoi on Saturday that Putin had again vehemently denied the allegations. The two spoke during an economic conference in Danang, Vietnam. Trump danced around questions about whether he believed Putin, but stressed Putin’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,” Trump said, arguing that it makes no sense for him to belabor the issue when Russia could help the U.S. on North Korea, Syria and other issues.
Trump said Sunday that he believes Putin believes Russia was not involved.
“That’s very important for somebody to believe,” Trump said in Hanoi.
Trump also lashed out Saturday at former heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, claiming there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of their findings and dismissing them as “political hacks.” In a tweet 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 U.S.
Trump’s comments Saturday drew strong reactions from some U.S. lawmakers.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said in a statement that Trump’s faith in Putin’s denial was “naive.”
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement that referenced Putin’s former career in Soviet intelligence and called Trump’s faith in Putin “naive.”
“Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart,” McCain added.
In Hanoi on Sunday, Trump also pointed to sanctions the U.S. 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.”
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.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
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