Donald Trump has been condemned as “treasonous” for siding with the Kremlin over his own government agencies after a stunning joint appearance with Vladimir Putin in which he seemingly accepted the Russian leader’s denial of election meddling.
At a joint press conference after one-on-one talks lasting more than two hours in the Finnish capital, the US president offered no criticism of Putin or the cyber-attacks that the US intelligence community says he coordinated to help Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump told reporters. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. 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.”
The comments set off a new firestorm in Washington and critics suggested it was a historically weak performance by a US president against a foreign adversary. It also fuelled the intrigue of why Trump’s refusal to speak ill of Putin remains one of the few constants of his White House tenure.
Asked directly if he took Putin’s word over his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies, Trump veered off in a rambling attempt to change the subject, raising the Democratic National Committee’s server and Hillary Clinton’s missing emails – a move seen by critics as a crude attempt to deflect and distract.
“Where are those servers?” Trump demanded. “Where are Hillary Clinton’s emails?”
And bridling at the suggestion that his election victory might be discredited, Trump added: “I beat Hillary Clinton easily … We won that race. And it’s a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it … We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.”
There was swift condemnation from some of Trump’s opponents in Washington. John Brennan, a former director of the CIA, 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.”
John McCain, chairman of the Senate armed services committee and a former Republican presidential nominee, said: “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.”
There was even a rebuke from the most senior elected Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said both the US intelligence community and the House intelligence committee concluded that Russia interfered in the election.
“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,” he said. “The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, said: “In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an American adversary the way President Trump has supported President Putin.
“For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defence officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak. The president is putting himself over our country.”
And Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona, tweeted: “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.”
For his part, Putin acknowledged that he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election but reiterated his denial of meddling. Speaking through an interpreter, he said: “We should be guided by facts. Can you name a single fact that would definitively prove collusion? This is utter nonsense. Just like the president recently mentioned.”
In the wake of last week’s indictment of 12 Russian military officers for hacking and leaking Democratic emails, Putin offered to allow the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to visit Russia and witness the accused being interrogated – but only if the US made a reciprocal arrangement that would allow Russian agents to operate in the US.
The 45-minute news conference followed a dialogue between Trump and Putin, with only interpreters present, at the Finnish presidential palace, followed by a working lunch – the first such event between a US and Russian president since 2010.
Journalists gathered in a baroque ballroom decorated with columns, golf leaf and crystal chandeliers and, behind the podium, five American and five Russian flags. Before the press conference started, a man, said to be holding a sign protesting against nuclear weapons, was bundled out of the room by three security guards.
The two leaders were an unlikely match at the podium. Trump, bigger and taller, had held political office for just 18 months; Putin has been at the top of government for 18 years.
Trump shook his counterpart’s hand and whispered, “Thank you very much”, before congratulating him on the successful hosting of the World Cup. Eager to take credit, he claimed: “Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”
Later, questioned why relations had deteriorated so badly, he said: “I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish … I think we’ve all been foolish. We’re all to blame. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago … We have both made some mistakes. I think the probe is a disaster for our country.”
The comments prompted consternation in Washington. Republican senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said: “This is bizarre and flat-out wrong. 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.”
There was some relief for western diplomats in that the press conference offered few clues as to whether Trump had made major concessions that would undermine Nato or Ukrainian sovereignty. Asked about Crimea, Putin said Trump “continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it. Our viewpoint is different.”
The Russian leader was also asked about claims that he holds compromising material on Trump; there have long been rumours of a video tape in which Trump was caught in a Russian hotel with sex workers. He quipped: “I was an intelligence officer and I know how dossiers are made up.”
Putin added: “Now to the compromising material, I did hear this rumour. When Trump visited Moscow back then, I didn’t even know he was in Moscow.”
Trump interjected: “If they had it, it would have been out long ago.”
But once again Trump seemed utterly resistant to saying anything negative about the Russian president. Having branded the European Union a “foe” over the weekend, he said of Putin: “I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is. The word competitor is a compliment.”
Putin, basking in the afterglow of Russia’s hosting of the World Cup, presented Trump with a football and said: “Now the ball is in your court.” Trump, smiling, replied: “That will go to my son Barron, no question.” He threw it to his wife, Melania, sitting on the front row along with secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and other senior officials.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, tweeted: “ … if it were me, I’d check the soccer ball for listening devices and never allow it in the White House.”