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Trump defies advisers in embrace of Putin

Stunned Washington pans Helsinki performance

Gulf News

WASHINGTON: US Administration officials had hoped that maybe, Monday’s summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would end differently — without a freewheeling 46-minute news conference in which Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised archrival Russia.

Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture towards Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Trump’s remarks were “very much counter to the plan,” the person said. “Everyone around Trump” was urging him to take a firm stance with Putin, according to a second person familiar with the preparations. Before Monday’s meeting, the second person said, advisers covered matters from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its interference in the US elections, but Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.

“I think that the United States has been foolish,” Trump said at one point, referring to tensions with Russia. “I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”

A senior White House official disputed the idea that the president acted unilaterally, and said he had numerous sessions with senior administration officials preparing for the summit in addition to briefing materials. In the end, Trump’s performance alongside Putin in the Finnish capital seemed like a tour through his most controversial conspiracy theories, tweets and off-the-cuff musings on Russia — except he did it all while abroad, standing just metres away from Putin.

During the conference, Trump unloaded on the US intelligence community and Justice Department to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy to deny him legitimacy.

As such, his extraordinary performance on Monday fuelled criticism of his presidency from both the right and left. And it will likely embolden Putin, who faced no pushback from Trump over the election allegations or a long list of other Kremlin actions, ranging from Syria to Ukraine.

Before Trump’s meeting Monday with the Russian president, several Republicans had urged him to send a strong sign of disapproval. The fact that Trump did almost the opposite brought sharp denunciations from critics and even some usually reliable Republican defenders.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” McCain, who has criticised Trump’s foreign policy over and again, said in a statement: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a cautious Trump supporter, said, “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world,” he said. “That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” he added.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic who is retiring, tweeted: “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.”

And Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who has been critical of the Russia probe, said that “Russia is not our friend” and expressed hope that Trump’s national security aides could convince him that “it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimising his electoral success.”

But after his two-hour, one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Trump cast doubt on US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the election, and he dismissed special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the meddling, suggesting there is no reason to doubt Putin’s denials of malfeasance. “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he said.

“The president has been more reluctant than most to weigh into the idea that Russia did it and they’re still doing it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He felt that would undermine his own election.”

‘Serious mistake’

Trump was even criticised by his longtime supporter and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said his performance at the press conference was “the most serious mistake of his presidency”. But, the President also found support from some of his party members. Sen. Rand Paul, who plans to travel to Russia next month to play shuttle diplomacy for President Trump. He said that Republicans who were criticising the President were “motivated by their persistent and consistent dislike of the president”.

On the Democratic side, House and Senate members quickly jumped on Trump’s comments. Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said Russian meddling will continue to be a threat. “This challenge and threat will not go away,” Warner said. “I think there are times in the Senate when people have to step up and say what side you’re on. This is one of those times.”

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, urged the GOP to “take off the blinders.”

Former CIA Director John O. Brennan went further. “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to (and) exceeds the threshold of “high crimes (and) misdemeanours,” he said in a tweet. “It was nothing short of treasonous.”

Trump couched the summit as a triumph of diplomacy, saying he was demonstrating statesmanship by agreeing to the meeting with Putin and savaging those who have expressed concern over its timing and what might have been on the table.

Yet, despite vague vows of better ties to come and new cooperation in Syria and on nuclear nonproliferation, neither Trump nor Putin was able to offer details of progress or specific improvements in relations as they spoke to reporters at a news conference in Helsinki after their long-awaited summit.

The only tangible sign of progress was Putin’s gift of a World Cup soccer ball to Trump. The only points of disagreement came when Putin gently chided Trump for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and when the Russian leader, not Trump himself, explained the US position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “He continued to maintain that it was illegal to annex it,” Putin said of Trump’s stance.

Putin, for his part, played the role of statesman, serving as a kind of emcee and parrying questions from the press by professing incredulity at the allegations of meddling, before making an astonishing offer of a “deal” with the president. His proposal to trade access to Russians accused of hacking in return for Russian investigators engaging in investigations of Kremlin critics was “an incredible offer,” according to Trump.

Trump’s openness to the symbolic offer appeared to cede the high ground to Putin. To Russia hawks, even consideration of the proposal pointed to the success of Putin’s efforts to shake the foundations of American democracy.

After all, that was the ultimate goal of Russia’s election meddling, US officials have assessed.

Putin appeared to poke at the sensitive subject when he responded to a question about meddling by asking, “Do you believe United States is a democracy?”

Trump rejects criticism, says he has confidence in US intelligence

President Donald Trump on Monday rejected criticism of his remarks at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, after a backlash from the American media and some of his own party Senators severely over the stand he took on the alleged Russia meddling in 2016 Presidential elections.

After two hours of one-on-one summit with his Russian counterpart, and later the delegation level talks, the two leaders addressed a joint press conference in which President Trump appeared to deny findings of the US intelligence community that Russia interfered with the US elections that Trump won.

However, in a tweet from Air Force One, on his way back home, he sought to set aside the impression and said he had full confidence in the country’s intelligence community.

“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’ “ he said but added that he also recognised that “in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”.

When asked whether he believed his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered, the President stopped short of directly saying that. “”My people came to me they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia. “But I have confidence in both parties,” he added.

The Director of US National Intelligence, Dan Coats, who had been nominated by Trump, reiterated in a statement that the intelligence community had been clear in assessments of Russian meddling in 2016 and Moscow’s ongoing, pervasive attempts to subvert democracy in the United States.

The summit came days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian nationals for their alleged roles in hacking the Democratic National Committee. President Putin said that the issue was raised by President Trump during the one-on-one meeting, but that he did not press him or condemn the election meddling.

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