Trade off: US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki on Monday. Trump refused to blame Putin for meddling in the 2016 elections, casting doubt on the findings of US intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism. Picture: REUTERS
Trade off: US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki on Monday. Trump refused to blame Putin for meddling in the 2016 elections, casting doubt on the findings of US intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism. Picture: REUTERS

Helsinki — US President Donald Trump emerged from a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday saying he saw no reason to believe Russia had hacked the 2016 US presidential election, and the Russian leader "was extremely strong and powerful" in denying the allegation.

Trump held his meeting just days after a special prosecutor in the US indicted 12 Russian agents for stealing Democratic Party documents to help Trump win the vote.

At a rambling news conference after one-on-one talks, Trump said not a single critical word about Russia on any of the issues that have brought relations between Washington and Moscow to a post-Cold War low, from Ukraine to Syria.

Asked if he trusted US intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Trump said he had been told by his CIA chief that Russia was to blame, but he was not certain. "I don’t see any reason why it would be" Russia, Trump said.

"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

Before the summit even began, Trump blamed his own country for the deterioration in relations between the countries.

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"

The Russian foreign ministry "liked" his words and tweeted back: "We agree".

At the news conference Trump was invited by reporters to offer even a single criticism of Russia, but repeatedly declined. Asked if Russia was at all to blame for the poor ties, he said: "I hold both countries responsible. I think the US has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish," he said, before veering into discussion about his election victory.

Playing ball: US President Donald Trump receives a football from Russian President Vladimir Putin as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday. Trump offered no criticism of Russia during the briefing. Picture: REUTERS
Playing ball: US President Donald Trump receives a football from Russian President Vladimir Putin as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday. Trump offered no criticism of Russia during the briefing. Picture: REUTERS

"I beat Hillary Clinton easily and frankly we beat her…. We won that race and it’s a shame that there can be even a little bit of a cloud over it," he said.

Trump’s repeated warm words for Russia were a marked contrast from the past week when he repeatedly rebuked traditional US allies at a summit of Nato and a visit to Britain.

Asked if Putin was an adversary, the US president said: "Actually, I called him a competitor and a good competitor he is, and I think the word competitor is a compliment."

Meanwhile, AFP reported that many in Washington were agog at Trump’s decision to sit one-on-one with Putin, a former KGB spymaster, worried about what he might bargain away after previously cosying up to the autocratic leaders of China and North Korea.

Indeed, some domestic critics wanted the Helsinki summit called off entirely after 12 Russian military agents were indicted under a long-running probe into Moscow’s alleged manipulation of the 2016 US elections.

But Trump, convinced his unique brand of diplomacy can make inroads with Putin, pressed ahead and looked forward to "having an extraordinary relationship" as the pair sat down to discuss everything from Syria, Ukraine and China to trade tariffs and the size of their nuclear arsenals.

Putin, basking in congratulations from Trump and other world leaders for the successful staging of the World Cup in Russia, said: "The time has come to talk in a substantive way about our relations and problem areas of the world."

Reuters/AFP

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