Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin

Xinhua/Sipa USA

Lawmakers On Both Sides Of Aisle Shocked By Remarks After Trump-Putin Meeting

July 16, 2018 - 11:27 am
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HELSINKI (WCBS 880/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.

Lawmakers React

Following the meeting and the news conference, Republicans and Democrats alike expressed dismay. Trump stunned onlookers particularly by repeatedly defending Putin during the press conference from allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and casting doubt on conclusions to that effect made by U.S. intelligence agencies.

“They, simply put, have never been with the president when it comes to his Russia stance. They are pretty much in agreement as a party that Russia is a threat, that Vladimir is someone who cannot be reliably expected to negotiate in good faith,” said CBS News Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes. “They were very worried about this meeting before it took place, and now you’ve got the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, Bob Corker, saying that he’s very disappointed and saddened by the press conference today.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the media event "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."

"President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin," McCain said in a statement. "He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, acknowledged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and was also critical of the Trump-Putin conference.

"The President's statements today in Helsinki demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee," she wrote in a statement. "This position is untenable and at odds with the forceful response this moment demands."

Even House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy, who last week hounded former FBI lawyer Peter Strzok for issues relating to his alleged anti-Trump bias and Russian interference in the election, said that Russia is an enemy. 

"Russia is not our friend," Gowdy said in a statement. "Russia attempted to undermine the fundamentals of our democracy, impugn the reliability of the 2016 election, and sow the seeds of discord among Americans." 

Ultimately, he called on individuals within the Trump administration to communicate with Trump that Russia did indeed meddle in the 2016 election "without delegitimizing his electoral success."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, criticized Trump's willingness to side with Putin over the American intelligence community's conclusions, calling Trump's words at the press conference "thoughtless, dangerous and weak." The Democratic leader also called for Trump to sit for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

"The President is doing grave harm to the standing of these United States while kowtowing to the number one enemy we probably have on the globe, Vladimir Putin," Schumer said. "He will continue to do so if he isn't checked."

Ari Fleischer, a Republican and prominent Trump defender who served as former President George W. Bush's press secretary, said that while he still does not believe Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections, he understands now why people think he's being blackmailed. 

"I continue to believe there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But when Trump so easily and naively accepts Putin's line about not being involved, I can understand why [Democrats> think Putin must have the goods on him," Fleischer tweeted. 

Outside of his office, Corker, R-Tennessee, said that Putin gained a "tremendous amount" from Monday's conference and that Putin is probably celebrating with "caviar."

"He gained a tremendous amount," Corker told a press gaggle. "It was almost an approval, if you will-- a public approval by the greatest nation on Earth towards him. He knows he gained a lot. I would guess he's having caviar right now."

At an Atlantic Council panel discussion, both Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia, denounced Trump's behavior. 

Warner called the president's actions "outrageous" while Rubio said that Putin's behavior Monday was very calculated, or "by design" and touching "certain pressure points."

In a series of tweets after the press conference, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ally of Trump, called the meeting with Putin a "missed opportunity" that would be perceived by "weakness" by Russia. Graham also said that, if it were up to him, the soccer ball Putin gave Trump would be checked for "listening devices" and never be taken into the White House. 

Retiring Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Trump's most outspoken critics in the GOP, called the press conference "shameful." 

Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a sometime critic of Trump, took issue with the president's claim that the U.S. is in part to blame for the state of Russo-American relations. Following up on a tweet he posted early Monday morning, Trump said at the press conference that he holds "both countries responsible" for tensions between the nuclear powers. 

"This is bizarre and flat-out wrong," Sasse said in a statement. "The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs."

Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan was more circumspect in his comments, but said Trump "must appreciate that Russia is not our ally." 

"There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world," Ryan said in a statement Monday afternoon.

"That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Democrats also criticized Trump's performance. John O. Brennan, who ran the CIA under President Obama, called Trump's comments at the press conference "nothing short of treasonous."

"Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous," Brennan tweeted. "Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"

And Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the press conference proves "that the Russians have something on" Trump. 

"President Trump's weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically," Pelosi said in a statement. "This is a sad day for America, and for all Western democracies that Putin continues to target."

Russia expert Beth Knobel told WCBS 880’s Joe Avellar and Mack Rosenberg that Trump’s remarks were shocking enough that Democrats and Republicans actually were brought together in agreement about it. She said the summit will likely weaken the U.S. position vis-à-vis Russia.

“But don’t take my word for it,” she said. “Look at the words of the Russian foreign minister. He’s basically calling the summit a slam dunk for Russia. He said it turned out even better than they ever imagined.”

In the past, when fellow Republicans have criticized President Trump, he has managed to use Twitter and his public relations ability to push them back in line. Whether that changes in the wake of this summit remains to be seen, Cordes said.

“It depends on whether Republicans in Congress put their money where their mouth is, and that’s what the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, is pushing for today,” she said. “He said it’s not enough for both parties to simply condemn what the president said.”

Schumer is calling for four actions from Republicans.

They include “hauling the aides to the president who accompanied him on this trip before Congress to testify sooner rather than later, to explain why the president said what he said, why he wasn’t advised to do differently, and if he ignored the advice, what it is that the administration can do to better inform him next time. He also wants Congress to send a strong signal by ratcheting up sanctions on Russia, not weakening them, and the list goes on and on,” Cordes said. “The case that he’s making is that it isn’t enough to say that the president was wrong. That it isn’t enough to simply stand by the intelligence community and put out a statement to that effect, that Congress needs to do more.”

CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk said some foreign leaders that traditionally have been adversaries to the U.S. have been pleased with the summit.

“Well, we haven’t heard from Syria’s president or North Korea’s, but there’s no doubt that they may be doing their happy dance,” she told Avellar and Rosenberg.

But as to UN diplomats particularly from Europe, it is a much different story.

“The world is shocked by this. All you can hear from UN diplomats is, ‘What is going on?’ You had Trump at Putin’s side questioning U.S. intelligence in the 2016 election. You had him talking about… that he had great confidence in the U.S. intelligence community, but that Putin’s denial of election meddling was extremely strong and powerful, and that puts him up against the entire intelligence community. You’ve heard already from the director of national intelligence Dan Coates saying that he has been clear in their assessment, that the intelligence community assumes there was ongoing pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and the list goes on,” Falk said.

Falk said European diplomats are keeping their mouths shut right now, but they are worried about what the apparent new alliance between the U.S. and Russia means for many foreign affairs issues.

“I’ve been asking many of them, and they just start talking about, what does this mean about nuclear nonproliferation? What does it mean about what Russia wants in North Korea, which they only last week proposed an 11th-hour… statement at the UN to lift the sanctions on North Korea,” she said. “So part of the question is where does this all leave Crimea? Where does it leave Syria? Where does it leave Iran and the nuclear deal – what’s called the JCPOA – because there’s a new alliance, clearly, of the U.S. and Russia.”

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)