Trump refuses to denounce Putin over election meddling at summit, blames 'both countries'

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Monday said at a joint briefing with Russian President Vladimir Putin that while he had "great confidence" in the U.S. intelligence community, Putin was "extremely strong and powerful in his denial" that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • "The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs including election process," Putin said during the conference alongside Trump.
  • "There was no collusion. I didn't know the president. There was nobody to collude with," Trump said Monday.
Putin: 'Fruitful' meeting with Trump 'a success'

HELSINKI — President Donald Trump on Monday said at a joint briefing with Russian President Vladimir Putin that while he had "great confidence" in the U.S. intelligence community, Putin was "extremely strong and powerful in his denial" that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The president blamed "both countries" for the strained relationship. When a reporter asked the president if he would denounce Russia's efforts to interfere in the presidential election, Trump raised the issue of Hillary Clinton's email server.

"I think it's a disgrace we can't get Hillary Clinton's 33,000 e-mails. 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," Trump said.

“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered with the 2016 election, Trump said.

Read more from CNBC:
Trump praises Putin's 'incredible' offer for mutual cooperation
How the Russians broke into the Democrats' email, and how it could have been avoided
John Brennan calls president's summit performance 'nothing short of treasonous'

Putin told Trump during the summit Monday that he never meddled in the election. At the briefing, Putin called the allegations "nonsense," and offered to allow special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators into Russia.

"The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs including election process," Putin said during the briefing alongside Trump.

The comments from the two leaders came during a free-wheeling press briefing at the tail end of Trump's raucous European tour. While the two leaders discussed issues ranging from the Syrian Civil War to nuclear nonproliferation, critics are likely to seize on what was left unsaid: Three days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian nationals for interfering in a U.S. election, Trump offered Putin nothing but praise.

Lawmakers, including a number of powerful Republicans in the Senate, were quick to criticize the president's comments Monday.

"Putin only understands strength," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters. "And I did not think this was a good moment for our country."

In a statement posted to Twitter later Monday, the president said he had confidence in the U.S. intelligence community.

"However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along," he wrote.

Possibility for 'mutual effort'

Trump: US, Russia militaries have gotten along better than our political leaders

Putin said that he was willing to work with the U.S. to "analyze together" any specific material related to election meddling.

He said that he would allow Mueller's investigators into Russia on the condition that the investigation would be a "mutual effort" in which Russian officials could also interrogate U.S. law enforcement officers "who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia."

The Russian leader also said the two discussed their "responsibility for maintaining international security" citing their respective nuclear weapon arsenals.

"It is crucial that we fine tune the stability and global security and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Putin said. "We submitted to our American colleagues a note with a number of specific suggestions and we believe it is necessary to work together to interact on the desired agenda, military and technical cooperation."

The results of the summit — including the impact of any agreements the two nations reached — are not yet clear, experts told CNBC.

"My sense is very little was agreed on other than to keep talking on a number of issues," Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Monday following the briefing.

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said there was a long way to go to restore trust in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Still, he said, there is a positive takeaway.

"The good news is both sides, who hold over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, are talking and that has to be a good thing," Kazianis told CNBC.

Trump denies collusion

Trump: There was no collusion, I didn't know Putin

The two leaders "spent a great deal of time," talking about election meddling, Trump said at the briefing. Trump repeatedly denied that there was any collusion, saying at the briefing that "there was no collusion at all."

"There was no collusion. I didn't know the president. There was nobody to collude with," Trump said. He added that he beat Hillary Clinton "easily."

Trump has faced pressure to address Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That pressure reached a new high on Friday after Mueller indicted 12 Russian government officials, accusing them of hacking into computers belonging to Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.

"I think the probe is a disaster for our country," Trump said at the briefing, referring to Mueller's investigation.

When asked if Putin would extradite the 12 Russian intelligence officers to the U.S. to face charges, the Russian leader said at the briefing that he did not know the full extent of the issue, but offered to have the 12 officials interrogated.

Putin also addressed allegations that Russia had collecting compromising material on Trump when Trump visited Moscow in 2013.

"I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was in Moscow," Putin said. "I treat President Trump with the utmost respect but back then, when he was a private individual, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."

Putin also said that he did favor Trump against Clinton in 2016.

"Yes, I did," Putin said. He said Trump was his favored candidate because he "talked about bringing the Russian relationship back to normal."

Meeting was 'a very good start'

The two leaders met at the Presidential Palace in Finland’s capital city on Monday for a bilateral talk that lasted more than two hours — longer than the 90 minutes that had originally been planned.

In his first comments after the meeting, Trump told reporters he believed the summit marked a "very good start."

"I think it’s a good start, a very, very good start for everybody," Trump said, speaking in the palace's Hall of Mirrors immediately following the meeting.

Earlier Monday, Trump predicted that the two leaders would have an “extraordinary relationship." The president said they would discuss “everything from trade, to military, to missiles, to nuclear to China."

The summit between the two leaders — their first in a formal setting — followed a contentious week in which the president slammed NATO allies for what he has called inadequate defense spending, threatened to "kill" a trade deal with the U.K., and called the European Union a "foe."

The series of events has prompted outcry from America's allies, including Germany, one of America's largest trading partners. Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas told a German newspaper group on Monday that the country "can no longer completely rely on the White House."

"While the summit talks that just concluded in Helsinki were described as 'deeply productive', there is clearly a long-way to go to build any sort of trust between Washington and Moscow, if ever," Kazianis told CNBC.

Pressured to address election meddling

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Trump has faced increasing pressure to address election meddling with Putin from both Democrats and Republicans.

In a joint-address with the British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, the president said he would address the Russian meddling.

"Will we be talking about meddling? I will absolutely bring that up. I don't think you'll have any, 'Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me.' There won't be a Perry Mason here I don't think," Trump said.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the new charges against the 12 Russian government officials hours later.

The president had gone back and forth over whether he would address meddling since he announced his plans to meet with Putin.

“You never know about meetings, what happens, right,” the president said told reporters in the Oval Office late last month in response to a question about whether he would raise the issue of election meddling.

Nuclear negotiations the 'low-hanging fruit'

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov at the Naval Base of Black Sea Fleet on September 23, 2014 in Novorossiysk, Russia.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Putin provided Trump's negotiators with a list of "specific suggestions" related to nuclear disarmament, the Russian leader said Monday.

"Today, negotiations reflected our joint wish with President Trump to redress this negative situation in a bilateral relationship," Putin said, saying the U.S. and Russia bore a "special responsibility" as major nuclear powers.

Meanwhile, the New START treaty, the current nuclear weapons agreement between Russia and the U.S., is slated to expire in 2021.

"I think the low-hanging fruit would be nuclear negotiations because the Europeans would be exceptionally happy to see us make progress with Russia on that front," Michael Desch, a foreign policy expert and director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame, told CNBC. "Reinvigorating the New START treaty would be a wise item on the agenda for the Trump administration."

There are about 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world, a figure that has declined since the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia own the lion's share, with more than 6,500 weapons each.

Moscow has accelerated its development of hypersonic weapons, threats the U.S. is currently unable to defend against.

In March, the Russian leader touted his nation's hypersonic weapons as "invincible" during a state of the nation address.

"I want to tell all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country's development: You have failed to contain Russia," Putin said during his address.

Of the six weapons Putin debuted in March, CNBC has learned that two of them will be ready for war by 2020, according to sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports.

U.S.-Russia relationship 'NEVER' worse

The president has said that he would improve the United States’ relationship with Russia. Though, in a post on Twitter on Monday, the president wrote that the relationship “has NEVER been worse."

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt," the president wrote.

The president walked back his tweet in a comment Monday at the joint press briefing. He acknowledged that he had called U.S.-Russia relations the worst ever, but said the summit changed the dynamic: "That changed as of about four hours ago," Trump said.

Trump tweet
The Russian ministry of foreign affairs quoted the president’s tweet, and wrote: “We agree.” State news agencies immediately picked up on the president’s comments. A headline in the government-controlled Sputnik News on Monday read: “Trump: Ties With Russia Have Never Been Worse Due to Years of 'US Foolishness'”

A number of lawmakers and former government officials have cautioned that the summit could serve to bolster Putin's domestic image while offering few chances for the U.S. to extract concessions.

"Foreign policy must be based on reality, not hyperbole or wishful thinking," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote in a post on Twitter Monday. "And the reality is #Russia is an adversary. Because #Putin doesn't believe in win/win scenarios & thinks only way to make Russia stronger is to make U.S. weaker. Any approach not based on this will fail."

Rubio is a member of the Senate's powerful foreign relations and intelligence committees.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement to NBC News Monday that Trump missed an opportunity to press Putin to extradite the 12 Russians Mueller indicted Friday.

"It should always be the goal of U.S. presidents to improve relations with other countries, especially ones as large and strategically important as Russia. It’s also important for our leaders to be clear-eyed in their approach," Grassley said. "Vladimir Putin isn’t a friend to the United States, to the Western world or our values."

Former CIA Director John Brennan, who has been highly critical of the president in the past, called Trump's comments "nothing short of treasonous" in a statement posted to Twitter Monday.

Russian officials praised the talks.

In a comment published Monday by the Russian state newswire RIA, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the summit was "fabulous." He described the talks between Trump and Putin as "better than super."

Watch the full press conference between Trump and Putin