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Donald Trump says Vladimir Putin denied interfering in the 2016 US election, and was “insulted” by the claims, when the leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum on Saturday.
Speaking on Air Force One following the conclusion of the Apec summit in Da Nang, Mr Trump suggested that he accepted the Russian president’s denial — even though the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence have all concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential race.
“Every time he sees me, he says ‘I didn’t do that’,” the US president told reporters on a flight to Hanoi. “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it . . . I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”
Mr Trump met Mr Putin during the Apec forum in the coastal Vietnamese city of Da Nang on what was the fourth leg of his five-nation Asia tour. He said that he asked Mr Putin about the allegations, which he originally raised with the Russian president in July when the two leaders met for the first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
“He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Mr Trump said. “I just asked him again and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they’re saying he did.”
Asked if he believed the denial, Mr Trump said: “I can’t stand there and argue with him.” However, he then described the claims as a “hit job” by Democrats, before saying that the former heads of the CIA, FBI and DNI — John Brennan, James Comey and James Clapper — who oversaw the Russia investigation were “political hacks”. The president’s comments suggested that he was more inclined to believe Mr Putin than his own intelligence agencies.
Mr Trump said the allegations about election meddling were preventing America from forging a good relationship with Russia, which he said was hampering efforts to tackle the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“If we had a relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing . . . because he [Putin] could really help us in North Korea,” Mr Trump stressed. “You’re talking about millions and millions of lives. This isn’t baby stuff.”
During his visits to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing earlier in the week, North Korea topped the agenda. While countries in the region become more nervous about the threat from Pyongyang, there are also concerns that Mr Trump may be preparing to launch military action against Kim Jong Un and his regime.
Mr Trump on Saturday said that, following his two days of meetings with Xi Jinping, he believed that the Chinese president was prepared to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, as part of the global campaign to convince Pyongyang to abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
“I think he’s going to ratchet it up,” Mr Trump said about Mr Xi. “But President Putin would be tremendously helpful . . . If I had Russia and China helping us with North Korea, I think that would solve it. But this artificial barrier gets in the way. I call it the ‘artificial Democrat barrier’. It gets in the way, which is a shame.”
Several hours after Mr Trump spoke, Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, said that the intelligence agency had not changed its conclusion that Russia meddled in the election under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, who was appointed by Mr Trump.
“CIA just told me: The Dir stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment . . . The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” Mr Hayden tweeted.
The US president’s remarks came as Robert Mueller — the special prosecutor appointed after the president fired Mr Comey — continues his investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Mr Mueller has already brought charges against three former aides, including Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman who has been indicted for tax evasion and money laundering. He has also charged George Papadopoulos, a former junior foreign policy aide for lying to the FBI about a series of Russia-related meetings.
Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, criticised Mr Trump’s comments. “President Trump believes a former KGB agent over 17 US intelligence agencies. That is outrageous,” Mr Cardin said, in a reference to Mr Putin who served as a Russian intelligence operative when he was younger.
But Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied to CNN television that Mr Putin and Mr Trump had discussed the meddling allegations at Apec.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump flew to Hanoi on Saturday evening to attend a state dinner hosted by Tran Dai Quang, the Vietnamese president. The two men are scheduled to hold a press conference on Sunday morning in Hanoi.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi