By JONATHAN LEMIRE, JILL COLVIN and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
HELSINKI (AP) — Russia’s Vladimir Putin said Monday he did want Donald Trump to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election but took no action during the campaign to make it happen. He said he favored the celebrity businessman because of his policies.
Trump and Putin “spent a great deal of time” discussing allegations of Russian election meddling as they met for several hours Monday, the U.S. president said. But Trump did not strongly condemn the interference efforts, which U.S. intelligence agencies insist did occur, including hacking of Democratic emails, the subject of last week’s indictment of 12 Russians.
Trump said, as he has countless times, that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russians. Putin, as always, denied all. The two leaders spoke at a joint news conference.
Trump, in opening remarks, said that U.S.-Russia relations had been at their lowest point until the two sat down face-to-face in a highly-anticipated summit.
“That changed,” Trump said, “As of about four hours ago.”
Trump also continued to deny that there had been any other collusion between his campaign and Russians, declaring: “We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.”
The summit began just hours after Trump blamed the United States — and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea — for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations. The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow’s aggression may go unchallenged.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, blaming “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”
The Russian foreign ministry responded by liking Trump’s tweet and then replying: “We agree.”
Asked about the tweet and whether he held Russia responsible for anything, Trump said he held “both countries responsible” thinks the United States has been “fooling” and that “we’re all to blame.”
“The probe in a disaster for our country. There was no collusion at all”
Putin, speaking through an interpreter, once again denied what he described as “so-called interference of Russia.” He called it “nonsense” and insisted the Russian state had never interfered and would never interfere in the American electoral process.
The pair had opened their long-awaited summit Monday with a wink and slouch, respectively, then talked one on one behind closed doors for two-plus hours before the American leader declared their meeting was off to a “very, very good start for everybody.”
“We have not been getting along well for the last number of years,” Trump said after arriving at the Presidential Palace in Finland’s capital, where the leaders are meeting. “But I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. … I really think the world wants to see us get along.”
Putin, for his part, said he and Trump have maintained regular contact through phone calls and meetings at international events but “the time has come to have a thorough discussion on various international problems and sensitive issues.” He added: “There are quite a few of them for us to pay attention to.”
Their opening one-on-one session had been scheduled to run 90 minutes. The Russians said it lasted two hours and 10 minutes. The White House wouldn’t immediately confirm the timing.
The summit, which is being closely watched around the world, was not the first time Trump and Putin have held talks. They met on the sidelines of world leader meetings in Germany and Vietnam last year. But Monday’s session was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump said last week that he would raise the meddling issue again with Putin, but questions have been swirling about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the interference that prompted a special investigation probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a “witch hunt.”
Addressing reporters before the one-on-one meeting, Putin struck a casual pose during Trump’s remarks, slouching in his chair with his legs wide and eyes low. He nodded along to some of Trump’s remarks before they were translated, showcasing his fluency in English. Trump leaned forward in his chair, his hands tented in front of him and frequently glanced over at the Russian president. At one point, he shot Putin a wink. After Trump concluded his remarks, American reporters shouted several questions about whether he would bring up election meddling during his discussions with Putin.
Trump did not respond; Putin appeared to smirk.
With that, the leaders gave a quick handshake and their private meeting in the opulent Gothic Hall was under way . Just the two of them, each with a translator.
They continued the discussion with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in a room called the Hall of Mirrors, which was once the emperor’s throne room. Then came the joint news conference.
Out on the streets, the summit attracted a grab-bag of protesters, with abortion-rights activists wearing artificially bulging bellies and Trump masks, anti-fascist protesters bearing signs with expletive-laden insults, and free traders, anti-war Ukrainians and gay rights supporters making their voices heard.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.