Friendly Press Conference for Trump and Putin Amid Election Allegations

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Trump Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference after their summit in Helsinki, Finland, Monday. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

In the public highlight of the much anticipated summit, President Trump and Russian President Putin held forth in a lively press conference.

As if to set the stage for a media melee, just before the two leaders entered the room, a man was forcibly removed. The man was later identified as Sam Husseini, an American op-ed writer for The Nation and the communications director of a group called the “Institute for Public Accuracy,” a non-profit whose mission is to “increase the reach and capacity of progressive and grassroots organizations to address public policy by getting them and their ideas into the mainstream media.”

Mr. Husseini held a placard which was wrestled from him, and which was described by the Russian authorities as a “malicious item.” It reportedly said, “Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” and was one of a selection of placards he brought.

After the kerfuffle and Mr. Husseini’s paraphernalia had been returned to him, the two presidents and their entourage entered. Mr. Putin spoke first. He began by saying that the Cold War is firmly in the past and that “both Russia and the United States face a whole new set of challenges.” Conceding that there was a lack of trust in both directions, Mr. Putin said that during the meetings they had tried to improve the relationship and “restore an acceptable level of trust.”

Moving on to mention some of the specific issues which he and President Trump had discussed, including Syria, terrorism and cybersecurity, Mr. Putin also touched on the controversial issue of Ukraine, saying, “The United States could be more decisive in nudging Ukrainian leadership.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine, was raised in the questions, at which point, Mr. Putin conceded that Mr. Trump “continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different.” In Russian minds, Crimea is part of Russia — as well as its strategic value, with the Russian navy stationed there, many residents are ethnic Russians who regard themselves as part of Russia, not Ukraine.

Toward the end of his opening speech, Mr. Putin raised the issue on everyone’s minds, a repeated theme in the questions that followed: whether there was any Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.

Mr. Putin said that he would reiterate his private words to Mr. Trump, “Russia never interfered and doesn’t plan to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, including elections.”

In turn, in his opening remarks, Mr. Trump said that he had raised the issue directly with the Russian president as, “I felt this was a message best delivered in person.” He said that the two had “spent a great deal of time talking about it.” Mr. Trump said categorically that there was no collusion. He observed, “I didn’t know the president until now. There was nobody to collude with!”

Mr. Trump had begun his speech by saying that he and Mr. Putin had discussed a wide range of critical issues for both countries. He thanked the president of Finland for hosting the event, describing it as “a great job.”

As he had done in his brief comments prior to their private meeting, Mr. Trump congratulated Mr. Putin and Russia for hosting the World Cup so well. The soccer theme resurfaced in a lighter moment at the end of the press conference, when Mr. Putin produced a soccer ball used in this year’s event, which he handed to Mr. Trump, saying, “The ball is now in your court.”

This was at least a partial reference to the USA being part of the North American consortium which will be hosting the tournament in 2026. Mr. Trump appeared to be both amused and delighted with his gift, saying he would give it to his son Barron, and throwing it toward his wife, Melania, who was sitting in the front row of the audience.

Mr. Trump seemed to be generally in a jovial mood during the press conference. He described the talks as “direct, open, deeply productive dialogue.” Acknowledging that the relationship between the countries was at a very low ebb, he said, “However that changed as of about four hours ago.” Mr. Trump said that he was prepared to put himself on the line in order to benefit the American people. And he added for emphasis, “I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”

This very positive approach counterbalanced the criticism which Mr. Trump received before, during and after the conference for going ahead with the meeting, despite 12 Russian intelligence officers having been charged with hacking by the U.S. only a few days ago. Mr. Trump was very robust in his continued denial of any interference with the election. He said, “The probe was a disaster for our country. It has kept us separated. There was no collusion.” He seemed to prefer to take Mr. Putin’s word over the apparent evidence of the FBI, saying, “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Referring directly to the election results, he said, “It was a clean campaign,” and “we ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.”

In Mr. Putin’s reply to the same question, the Russian president asked, “Where did you get the idea that Trump trusts me or I trust him?” He said that they were looking for “points of contact” and trying to find a way to work together.

Mr. Trump said that among other topics he had discussed with Mr. Putin were nuclear proliferation, the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” and the “complex” situation in Syria. He pointed out that, between them, the two countries have about 90 percent of all nuclear weaponry and suggested that it is time to start to scale this down. He also said that the leaders had discussed the issue of Iran, saying that that country could not be allowed to continue its nuclear expansion, not its support of violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Also on the subject of the Middle East, Mr. Trump commended Russia for its work in opposing IS, saying that they are 80-90 percent destroyed in the Middle East. He expressed his concern for the Syrian people, describing their situation as “horrible” and saying that he wants to help them “get back into shelter” so that the crisis can be resolved on a humanitarian basis. Although none of the journalists mentioned Israel, in replying to a question about the specifics of what could be done in Syria, Mr. Trump pointed out that both he and Mr. Putin have strong relationships with Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, and that they would like to help Israel to be safe, particularly from the Syrian threat.

The press conference concluded with possibly the most prickly of a series of prickly questions, asking Mr. Putin directly if he had any compromising material on Mr. Trump or his family. Both presidents laughed when the question was asked.

Mr. Putin dodged the question, saying, “I did hear these rumors … Please disregard these issues.” Mr. Trump quipped, “If they had it, it would have been out long ago.”

The two leaders then shook hands, waved to the press and left the room together.