US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their
meeting in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Following a high-stakes one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, US President Donald Trump refused to say that he trusted the US intelligence community, bashed the FBI and the Democratic National Committee, and indicated that he believed Putin over American intelligence agencies.
Trump's comments came after Associated Press White House reporter Jonathan Lemire asked him who he believed during a joint press conference with Putin, and whether Trump would publicly denounce Russia's interference in the 2016 election and warn him never to do it again.
Trump declined to do so and proceeded to pin the blame on the US.
"We have two thoughts," Trump said. "You have groups that are wondering why the FBI hasn't taken the [DNC] server. Why haven't they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the DNC? I've been wondering that."
He added: "With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me … they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it's not Russia."
"I will say this," Trump said. "I don't see any reason why it would be."
He then went on to denigrate Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and his 2016 election rival.
"What happened to Hillary Clinton's emails?" he said. "33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn't be gone so easily."
Trump said that while he had "great confidence" in the US intelligence community, Putin "was extremely strong and powerful in his denial" of Russian election meddling.
Putin added that the "final conclusion" on the issue of Russian meddling would be made by the US courts, and "not by the law enforcement" or any other member of the executive branch.
Putin also pushed another frequent talking point, saying that some of the Russians who have been indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation were not part of the Russian state.
However, the US intelligence community has long believed that the Kremlin often uses proxies and outside groups to do its bidding in order to maintain plausible deniability.
Referencing Mueller's latest indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers, Putin said the special counsel should send Russia a request for criminal extradition and that the Russian government would "analyze it properly and send a formal response" back to the US.
"Let's discuss the specific issues," and not use US-Russia relations "as loose change for an internal political struggle," Putin said.
Trump's comments ignited a firestorm among US lawmakers, foreign-policy experts, and intelligence veterans.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump missed an opportunity to "firmly hold Russia accountable" for its actions and warn it not to meddle in the US electoral process again.
"This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves," Graham said.
"This is an astounding news conference even by Trump standards," wrote Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. "The President of the United States just questioned publicly the conclusions of the US intelligence community and spread conspiracy theories to excuse Russia's cyber attack on the United States. Treasonous."
John Brennan, the former director of the CIA and a frequent Trump critic, also suggested Trump's comments constituted treason.
"Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors,'" Brennan tweeted. "It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"