The president stunned critics with his anti-American remarks in Helsinki, Finland, at the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Lindsay Kimble
July 16, 2018 10:43 AM
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Following his highly-anticipated one-on-one meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, President Donald Trump lashed out at Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian cyber attack on the 2016 U.S. election and credited Putin with a forceful denial of any wrongdoing.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said.

Putin told reporters that his talks with Trump “took place in a frank and business-like atmosphere. I think we can call it a success.”

In the public moments surrounding the meeting, Trump focused on praise for Russia’s recent World Cup hosting duties, rather than the country’s 12 intelligence officials charged on Friday by the U.S. Justice Department with hacking into the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The indictments stem from Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.

At a subsequent press conference, Trump again lavished praise on Putin for the World Cup—”It was really one of the best ever … it was a great job,” Trump said at a lectern beside Putin, who presented Trump with a soccer ball. Trump tossed the ball to First Lady Melania Trump, who was seated in a front row, and said they would bring it home for their soccer-playing son, Barron.

Trump also said briefly in his prepared remarks to the press that he privately “addressed” with Putin “Russian interference with our elections. … I felt this was a message best delivered in person.”

Putin acknowledged that he wanted Trump to prevail over Clinton.

Trump was asked by an American reporter, “Do you hold Russia at all accountable?” The president replied that the United States and Russia were both in the wrong. “I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think the [Mueller] probe is a disaster for our country.”

Trump lamented that the investigation into a cyberattack on the United States to interfere with U.S. elections had tarnished his victory and has had “a negative impact on the relationship” with Russia.

“I beat Hillary Clinton easily,” Trump said. “It’s a shame tht there can be even a little bit of a cloud over it. … It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”

Critics from across the U.S. political spectrum howled.

“Is Putin actually trying to suppress a grin as Trump says there was no collusion and discusses his victory over Clinton? Good God. This is so much worse that contemplated. “We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m President,” tweeted 25-year federal prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, now a University of Alabama law professor.

And Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, tweeted: “Trump attacks an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department while standing next to Putin. Even for 2018—unbelievable.”

Anchoring the live coverage for CNN, Anderson Cooper told viewers, as the press conference concluded: “You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russan leader than I’ve ever seen. …They’re tossing a ball around to each other. There was absolutely no backbone, publicly, on the part of the president of the United States in the face of Vladimir Putin.”

Trump and Putin met privately — with only their respective translators present — for more than two hours. Afterward, they were joined by their official delegations for additional talks over a late lunch.

New cameras were allowed into the dining room briefly before the food was served. Asked by a reporter how talks were going, Trump responded, “I think it’s a good start. Very, very good start for everybody.”

Russia US Summit in Helsinki, Finland - 16 Jul 2018
Credit: HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/LEHTIKUVA HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Ahead of their private talks, Trump told reporters that he and the Russian president would discuss trade and military, among other things. He noted of Russia and the U.S., “We’ve been not getting along for the past years.”

The president seemed to be optimistic about the conversation before declaring the “good start,” teasing, “We’ll have an extraordinary relationship.”

He noted as the headed out, “The world awaits.”

Even earlier on Monday, before heading into the talks, Trump tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”

Russia US Summit in Helsinki, Finland - 16 Jul 2018
Credit: HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/LEHTIKUVA HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
FINLAND-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT
Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s criticism of his own country was retweeted by the Russian Foreign Ministry — with the simple endorsement, “We agree” — only compounding astonishment back home over Trump’s handling of Putin.

“You had Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union ‘the evil empire’ in advance of talks,” Anderson Cooper said on CNN. “I mean, it’s as if the president today is calling the United States the stupid empire in advance of talks.”

FINLAND-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT
Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Veteran foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, from NBC News, called Trump’s tweet the “perfect propaganda tool for Russia.”

Clinton also hit out at Trump, writing on Twitter, “Great World Cup. Question for President Trump as he meets Putin: Do you know which team you play for?”