President Trump suggested on Saturday that Russian president Vladimir Putin is more trustworthy than America’s intelligence agencies on the matter of whether Russia interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election. Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump implied that he believed Putin’s claim of innocence on the issue, which Trump said came up while the two leaders were chatting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam. The two had no formal meeting at the summit, but talked two or three times on the sidelines. It was during at least one of those conversations that Russia’s election meddling was broached, according to Trump.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said. “I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
Though he dodged a question as to whether or not he fully believed Putin’s denials, it seemed clear that Trump was more than sympathetic to the Russian leader’s viewpoint. “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said, noting that he thinks Putin is “insulted” by the accusation, “which is not a good thing for our country.” Instead, echoing Putin’s consistent framing of the issue, Trump said that the meddling allegations were an “artificial Democratic hit job” and “artificial barrier” making it more difficult for the U.S. and Russia to work together on shared security issues like dealing with North Korea or Syria.
“Having a good relationship with Russia is a great, great thing,” and this issue “gets in the way, and that’s a shame, because people will die” on account of the resulting inaction, Trump insisted.
Of course, Trump and Putin’s much-ado-about-nothing assessment flies in the face of what the FBI, CIA, and NSA have concluded, but Trump seemed to write off that analysis on Saturday. According to Trump, Obama administration intelligence officials who were responsible for the assessment — like former FBI director James Comey, former CIA director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — are “political hacks” whose opinions are apparently worth less than Putin’s.
“Give me a break,” Trump complained to reporters, “You have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he is proven now to be a leaker. So you look at that and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with them.”
Indeed, Trump seemed quite impressed by the strength of Putin’s statements, also remarking that, “He says that very strongly, he really seems to be insulted by it and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it.”
“I can’t stand there and argue with him,” Trump confessed, “I’d rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I’d rather have him, you know, work with him on the Ukraine than standing and arguing about whether or not … that whole thing was set up by the Democrats.”
But Trump’s attempt to smear Comey, Clapper, and Brennan ignores the fact that Trump administration intelligence officials agree with their Obama administration counterparts. On Saturday, the CIA said in a statement that current CIA director Mike Pompeo “stands by” the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia attempted to influence last year’s election. This was a reiteration of Pompeo’s previous comments on the subject. Furthermore, other Trump administration intelligence officials like current Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI director Christopher Wray, and NSA director Mike Rogers have agreed that Russia meddled in last year’s election.
Putin’s meddling also came up at the first official meeting with Trump at July’s G20 summit in Germany. After that meeting, Trump said that the two would not be able to agree about the meddling and should move on. The Kremlin, meanwhile, said at the time that Trump had in fact accepted Putin’s denials — an account which has more credibility after Trump’s comments on Saturday.
This time, Putin’s press secretary denied that the topic even came up while Putin and Trump chatted at the Asia summit, and the Kremlin said that the leaders had only discussed Syria and “confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS” in the country, per a joint statement released by Russia. As far as Putin himself, he remarked on Saturday that U.S.-Russia relations “have not come out of the crisis state yet,” but that “we are prepared to turn the page and go forward to look into the future to solve the problems that are of interest to people of the United States and people of the Russian Federation.” The ongoing Russia investigation in the U.S. is only “a manifestation of a continuing domestic political struggle,” according to Putin. On that point, Trump and Putin have always been in agreement.