HELSINKI (Reuters) – Standing side-by-side with Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the U.S. 2016 election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism at home.
On a day when he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Trump spoke not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Instead, he denounced the “stupidity” of his own country’s policy, especially the decision to investigate election interference following the conclusions drawn by U.S. intelligence agencies. A prosecutor announced an indictment three days ago of Russian spies for hacking into Democratic Party networks.
Trump’s handling of a joint news conference in Helsinki stirred a wave of condemnation in the United States, where the White House has struggled for months to dispel a suggestion that Trump was unwilling to stand up to Putin.
Asked if he believed U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help him defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, he said he was not convinced.
“I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
In one response, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump nominee approved by Congress, said in a statement, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
At the news conference, Trump was invited by reporters to offer any criticism of Russia but he repeatedly declined. Asked if Russia was at all to blame for the poor ties, he said, “I hold both countries responsible. I think the U.S. has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said, before veering into discussion about his election victory.
Trump’s warm words for Russia were a marked contrast from the past week when he repeatedly rebuked traditional U.S. allies at a summit of NATO and during a visit to Britain.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s performance would send a message of “weakness” to Moscow.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic, said, “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.”
The Republican head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said Trump’s comments at the joint news conference made the United States look like a “pushover.”
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the top congressional Republican, took a more tempered approach but insisted that Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
Former CIA chief John Brennan went further, suggesting Trump should be removed from office. Brennan tweeted, “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter, “Every single day, I find myself asking: what do the Russians have on @realDonaldTrump personally, financially, & politically? The answer to that question is that only thing that explains his behavior & his refusal to stand up to Putin.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for a bipartisan effort to “ratchet up” sanctions on Moscow.