President Donald Trump on Sunday said he believes U.S. intelligence agencies, which have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. But Trump also said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is sincere when he says Russia didn’t interfere.
“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said of Putin at a news conference with Vietnam’s president in Hanoi. “As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies.”
He added, “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
Top U.S. intelligence officials, including those at the CIA, have concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help the Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. A special counsel and multiple Congressional committees are also investigating potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides. That probe has so far led to the indictments of Trump’s former campaign chairman and another top aide for financial and other crimes unrelated to the campaign, as well as a guilty plea from a Trump foreign policy adviser.
President Trump also seemed to suggest Sunday that it was time to remove the sanctions Congress has slapped on Russia in retaliation.
“It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken,” said President Trump. “Those are very important things.”
It’s a question that has followed President Trump since January, when he said for the first time at a press conference in Trump Tower shortly before taking office that he accepted Russia was behind the election year hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” President Trump said then, quickly adding that “other countries and other people” also hack U.S. interests.
But the issue wasn’t settled.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday on his way to Hanoi, President Trump had said that President Putin again vehemently denied the allegations — this time on the sidelines of an economic conference in the seaside city of Danang. President Trump danced around questions of whether he believed President Putin, but stressed Putin’s denials. He also accused Democrats of using the issue to try to sabotage relations between the two countries, putting lives at risk.
“Every time he sees me, he said: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe — that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said, arguing that it made no sense for him to belabor the issue.
“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,” he said.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One before landing in Hanoi, Trump also lashed out at the former heads of the nation’s intelligence agencies, claiming there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of their findings. “I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks,” Trump said, citing by name James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, John Brennan, the former CIA director, and his ousted ex-FBI director James Comey, whom Trump said was “proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.”
In a tweet sent Sunday from Hanoi, Trump bashed the “haters and fools” he said were questioning his efforts to improve relations with Russia and accused critics of “playing politics” and hurting the country.
Trump was in Hanoi for a brief state visit. He heads to the Philippines later Sunday — the last stop of his five-country trip — for a pair of summits.
In brief remarks after his arrival at Hanoi’s presidential palace, Trump offered Vietnam help negotiating with China on disputes over the South China Sea. Beijing’s island-building there has drawn criticism from Washington, which argues the U.S. has a national interest in freedom of navigation in sea lanes critical for world trade. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month said China’s “provocative actions” challenged international law and norms.
“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know,” Trump offered. “I’m a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator. I’ve done plenty of it from both sides.”
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang said he preferred to settle the dispute through “peaceful negotiations” and “with respect for diplomatic and legal process in accordance with international law.”
Trump also said he hoped to have more help from Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Russia, when it comes to isolating North Korea, in an effort to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear weapons program. “President Xi I think is going to be a tremendous help. I hope Russia likewise will be a tremendous help,” Trump said. “I think they can make a big difference.”
Earlier, Trump had exchanged school-yard taunts with the country’s leader Kim Jong-un. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?” Trump tweeted from Vietnam, adding: “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”
Asked whether he could really be friends with Kim, Trump said, “I think anything’s a possibility. Strange things happen in life.”