Trump, under fire, distances self from remarks on Putin over election meddling

November 13, 2017 - 8:00 AM
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they take part in a family photo at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

HANOI — U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday attempted to clear up confusion over whether he accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling in the U.S. election last year after former intelligence chiefs suggested he was mishandling the issue.

At a news conference in Vietnam, Trump distanced himself from remarks he made on Saturday in which he suggested he believed Putin when he said there had been no Russian meddling in the election that took him to the White House.

The comments had drawn criticism at home because U.S. intelligence agencies have long since concluded there was Russian meddling.

Former CIA Director John Brennan and ex-National Intelligence Director James Clapper both said Trump was mishandling Moscow ties even as a special counsel investigates possible collusion between Trump’s campaign team and Russia.

“I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do, or what might come out as a result of these investigations… It’s either naiveté, ignorance or fear in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-à-vis the Russians,” Brennan said in an appearance with Clapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Clapper added that foreign leaders who roll out the red carpet for Trump are able to manipulate Trump.

“I do think both the Chinese and the Russians think they can play him,” Clapper said.

Their comments came after Trump told reporters Saturday that he had spoken with Putin again over allegations of Russian meddling in the presidential election and that the Russian president again denied any involvement.

“I really believe that, when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”

But at the Sunday news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Trump said: “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted.”

“As currently led, by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”

He was careful to make clear he sided with the intelligence agencies under his own leadership.

Clapper had told Reuters: “The fact the president of the United States would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable.”

The Russian issue has clouded Trump’s first year in office and his comments on Saturday were a distraction from his five-nation Asia tour.

Trump said he still believed Putin did not think there had been Russian meddling.

“I believe that President Putin really feels, and feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election,” Trump said, while adding: “What he believes is what he believes.”

Trump said he was not interested in arguing with Putin over meddling and wanted to get on with Russia to work on world problems including North Korea, Syria and Ukraine.

Trump has called allegations of campaign collusion with Moscow a hoax. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is conducting an investigation that has led to charges against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates.

U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded Russians interfered to tip the election in Trump’s favour through hacking and releasing emails to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and spreading social media propaganda.