HELSINKI (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - United States President Donald Trump said he had spent “a great deal of time” pressing Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about election meddling at summit talks on Monday (July 16).
“During today’s meeting I addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person,” Mr Trump told a joint news conference.
“Spent a great deal of time talking about it, and President Putin may very well want to address it and very strongly. He feels very strongly about it and he has an interesting idea,” he said without elaborating.
Mr Trump began his meeting with Mr Putin in Helsinki on Monday, testing his campaign pledge to revive ties with Russia amid pressure to confront the Kremlin leader over election meddling and growing concern that the US is abandoning the current international order.
The highly anticipated event started with 90 minutes in which the former property developer and the former KGB agent meet one-on-one, with only their respective translators in attendance.
For Mr Putin, the meeting is a win even before it began, as it helps restore an image of parity with the US that Russia lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We have a lot of good things to talk about, and things to talk about,” Mr Trump said before shaking hands with the Russian leader before the summit. “We have discussions on everything from trade to military to missiles to nuclear to China.” He didn’t mention the indictments or the Kremlin’s interference in the US election.
In a bit of gamesmanship, Mr Putin arrived in Helsinki about a half-hour late, while Mr Trump didn’t depart the resort home where he was meeting with advisers for the summit until after the Russian leader arrived at the presidential palace. The meeting was delayed about an hour as a result.
“It is now time to talk in depth about our bilateral ties and sore points in the world,” Mr Putin said in Russian. “There are enough of those that we need to pay attention to.”
Having campaigned on a promise to improve ties with Mr Putin, Mr Trump’s meeting the Kremlin leader over the objections of US lawmakers after a grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday (July 13) for their alleged role in meddling with the 2016 election.
The Russian agents are accused of hacking email accounts controlled by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the campaign of Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump's rival in the 2016 presidential election, and publicising messages.
The indictments raised the stakes for the Helsinki summit, even as aides to both Mr Trump and Mr Putin ratcheted down expectations.
Mr Trump said in an interview with CBS News broadcast on Sunday (July 15) that he may ask the Russian president to extradite the agents to the US. On Monday, he blamed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the election interference for poor relations between the US and Russia, rather than the Kremlin activities that the Department of Justice began probing in 2016.
“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 on Twitter as he prepared to meet Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by tweet: “We agree.”
The Putin meeting follows a contentious Nato summit in Brussels last week at which Mr Trump badgered US allies to more rapidly increase their defence spending, insinuating he might withdraw from the alliance otherwise.
He continued to castigate US allies during his visit to the UK, where he involved himself in the internal affairs of British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The US president also said in a CBS News interview broadcast on Sunday that the European Union is an American “foe” for “what they do to us in trade”. He called Russia a “foe in certain respects.”
Mr Trump said at breakfast with Mr Niinisto that the Nato summit was “very successful”.
“They’re paying and they’re paying more rapidly and I think Nato’s probably never been stronger than it is today,” he said.
Mr Trump argues that by urging higher defence spending by Nato countries, he is raising pressure on Moscow. But he continues to face questions about whether he’s playing into the hands of Mr Putin, who has long sought to exacerbate and exploit tensions among Western allies.
“I really think the world wants to see us get along,” Mr Trump said. “We are the two great nuclear powers, we have 90 per cent of the nuclear. And that’s not a good thing, it’s a bad thing, and I think we can hopefully do something about that.”
The US president has expressed reluctance to hold Mr Putin to account for Moscow’s election meddling and has indicated he accepts the Russian president’s denials at face value.
But US lawmakers of both parties said following Friday’s indictments, which resulted from Mr Mueller’s probe, that Mr Trump must either confront Putin in Helsinki or cancel the meeting in protest.
Mr Trump deflected responsibility for confronting Moscow, saying in tweets and interviews that former President Barack Obama had done nothing to prevent the hacks of Democratic email accounts or to punish the Russians afterwards.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday that the indictments were baseless and had been timed to poison the mood ahead of the summit.
Mr Putin has allowed that non-state actors in Russia – people he likened to “artists” – may have taken it upon themselves to launch cyberattacks on Mrs Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.
The drama between Mr Trump and Mr Putin will play out at the imposing 19th Century presidential palace in Helsinki. Several Senate Democrats wrote to Mr Trump on Saturday to warn him against meeting alone with Mr Putin, to no avail.
Officials at the Kremlin and the White House say Mr Putin and Mr Trump will discuss many of the issues causing the most friction between the countries. That includes Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine and Syria, the Iranian presence in Syria, Russian hostility toward US allies, the arrests of Russian nationals abroad and renewing international arms control treaties.
“This is an attempt to see if we can defuse and take some of the drama, and quite frankly some of the danger, out of the relationship,” Mr Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, said on Sunday.
One possible outcome of the summit is renegotiation of a nuclear treaty that expires in 2021.
Mr Putin may update Mr Trump on negotiations for pro-Iranian militias in Syria to withdraw from areas near Israel in favour of government troops.
The Russian leader meanwhile wants to discuss the US seizure of Russian diplomatic properties in the US as punishment for the 2016 election meddling, as well as the arrests of Russian citizens in third countries at Washington’s request.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday on RT that the aim of the meeting is merely to open what he called “frozen” channels of communication.
Russia was kicked out of the Group of Eight nations after its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Relations have further degraded over Mr Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, and a nerve-agent poisoning this year of a former Russian spy living in Britain that the UK government has pinned on Moscow.