Speaking during a joint press conference following a landmark meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday afternoon, US President Donald Trump once more sought to reassure friends and foes that Russia did not meddle in the US election of 2016.
According to Trump, the pair “spoke of Russian interference in the election. “We spent a great deal of time talking about it. Putin also felt strongly about it and has an interesting idea,” Trump told a gaggle of international journalists, without however elaborating on the idea.
Asked by a Reuters journalist whether he did indeed attempt to hold Putin and Russia accountable for anything related to the claims of interference, Trump doubled down on his defence.
“There was no collusion, everybody knows it. …It was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. It’s a shame that there could even be a bit of a cloud over it,” the US president insisted.
“The probe is a disaster for our country. There was no collusion, everybody knows it. It was a clean campaign. There was zero collusion. This [probe] has had an impact on the relationship between the two largest nuclear powers in the world,” he said a third time.
“There was no collusion. I didn’t know the president; there was nobody to collude with,” Trump continued in a long answer, referring to the probe into the suspicions of election interference by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Putin: "It's nonsense"
Putin also relayed the same message, both in his prepared remarks at the beginning of the press conference and later when taking questions from pool journalists.
“On the so-called interference of Russia in US elections, I reiterated what I said several times. The Russian state has never interfered and will never interfere in the internal workings of the US state,” he said early in the proceedings, adding that both sides could look at the issue via a joint working group on cybersecurity.
During his turn to respond to the question of Russian accountability for the alleged election meddling, Putin responded cryptically, “Where did you get the idea that President Trump trusts me or that I trust him? He defends the interest of the USA and I defend the interests of Russia. We are looking for areas where we can cooperate.”
“We should be guided by facts. Can you name any facts that definitively prove collusion? It’s nonsense!” he continued.
The leaders’ unified front on the issue is follows the indictment last Friday of 12 Russians suspected of meddling in the 2016 election. Their denials are consistent with their previous statements on the issue, with Trump saying in the past that he accepted Putin’s denial of involvement.
US allies and political analysts were concerned about what would happen when novitiate Trump came up against Putin, a seasoned politician backed by a long career as an intelligence officer. The men met with no staffers, handlers or foreign policy advisors. A one-on-one meeting between the two men went on for more than two hours rather than the scheduled 90 minutes.
President Trump had previously said that he was going into the meeting with “low expectations.” On Saturday, he indicated to the US television network CBS that he had no clear goals going into the meeting.
Asked by the network whether he would ask Putin to hand over 12 Russians indicted for suspected interference in the 2016 general election, the US president said he might. However there is no extradition treaty between the two countries.
The final question of the press conference asked Vladimir Putin whether Russia had compromising material on Donald Trump. Putin did not deny that such material exists, only saying that he did not know who Trump was when he visited Moscow.