HELSINKI — President Trump stood next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday and publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In wrapping up what he called a “deeply productive” summit in Helsinki, Trump issued an extraordinary show of trust for a leader accused of attacking American democracy.
During a remarkable news conference, Trump did not name a single action for which Putin should be held accountable. Instead, he saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the special counsel investigation into the election interference, calling it a “ridiculous” probe and a “witch hunt” that has kept the two countries apart.
Trump even questioned the determinations by his intelligence officials that Russia had meddled in the election.
“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said, only moments after the Russian president conceded that he had favored Trump in the election because of his promises of warmer relations with Moscow.
“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for the election hacking, Trump added. “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.”
The 45-minute news conference offered the spectacle of the American and Russian presidents both pushing back on the notion of Moscow’s election interference, with Putin demanding evidence of something he said had never been proved and Trump appearing to agree.
When asked directly whether he believed Putin or his own intelligence agencies, Trump said there were “two thoughts” on the matter: one from such US officials as Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence, asserting Russia’s involvement; and one from Putin dismissing it.
“I have confidence in both parties,” he said.
He then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee and asking about the fate of e-mails missing from the server of Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival.
His performance drew strong protests from Democrats and some Republicans, prompting John Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Obama, to suggest that the remarks warranted Trump’s impeachment.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ ” Brennan wrote on Twitter, calling the behavior “treasonous.”
“Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin,” Brennan added. “Republican Patriots: Where are you?”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, released a statement saying, “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy.”
And within hours, Coats issued his own strongly worded statement that contained an implicit rebuke of Trump.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said. “We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Some of Trump’s own advisers privately said they were shocked by the president’s performance, including his use of the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the special counsel investigation while standing beside Putin.
Aboard Air Force One back to Washington, Trump’s mood grew foul as the breadth of the critical reactions became clear, according to some people briefed on the flight. Aides steered clear of the front of the plane to avoid being tapped for a venting session with Trump.
Some political allies worried that the encounter with Putin would linger over Republicans heading into the midterm elections this fall.
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House who has advised Trump, said on Twitter. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
Both presidents said it was vital to talk to each other because, as leaders of the major nuclear powers, they had a responsibility to engage in dialogue and ensure stability.
But Trump’s statements at the news conference were a remarkable break with his administration, which on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for cyberattacks intended to interfere in the presidential contest. The indictment explained, in detail, how Russian intelligence officers hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign, providing the most explicit account to date of the Russian government’s meddling in US democracy.
Trump said he did not regard Putin as an adversary, but as a “good competitor,” adding that, “the word ‘competitor’ is a compliment.”
Asked by an American reporter whether he had wanted Trump to win and directed an effort designed to bring about that result, Putin quickly answered: “Yes I did, yes I did, because he talked about bringing the US-Russia relationship back to normal.” It was not clear whether Putin had heard the translation of the second part of the question.
Putin said he would look into the possibility of having Russian law enforcement authorities assist Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Moscow’s election interference, in questioning the 12 people who were charged.
Putin, who rolled his eyes and snickered at the notion that he had compromising material on Trump or his family, said Russia in return would request US help in cases of interest to Moscow, including the ability to send Russian agents to work in the United States.
He brought up William F. Browder, a longstanding critic of the Kremlin. Putin accused his associates of evading taxes and funneling millions of dollars to the Clinton campaign.
Putin took solace in Trump’s casting doubt about who was responsible for the hacking, saying the allegations that Russia had directed the effort were “utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.”
In a separate development Monday, US prosecutors charged a Russian woman who tried to broker a pair of secret meetings between Trump and Putin during the campaign.
Working at the behest of a Russian government official and with help from an unidentified US political operative, Maria Butina worked to infiltrate US organizations as a way to secretly advance Russian interests, prosecutors said.
As part of that effort, she tried to establish “back channel” lines of communication with US politicians, according to court records. “These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” an FBI agent wrote in court documents.
Emerging from his heart-to-heart with Putin, which was followed by a lunch meeting with advisers, Trump cited a litany of factors that he said had stood in the way of better relations.
Trump said those included Democrats’ bitterness over having lost an election that they should have won and Mueller’s investigation. Trump claimed to have defused all that tension in a matter of minutes.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” he said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”