WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump defended his efforts to build a relationship with Vladimir Putin in an interview broadcast on Friday after he invited the Russian leader for a second meeting in the midst of an uproar over their first.
U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Trump’s administration has sought to control the damage from Monday’s summit in Helsinki, where the president astonished the world and drew sharp criticism at home by siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
As the White House tried to put some distance between the two leaders, Trump made a jarring move in the opposite direction on Thursday, offering to host Putin in Washington in the fall.
In a television interview taped on Thursday, Trump said that he and Putin, who U.S. intelligence agencies say directed interference to sway the 2016 vote toward Trump, had a rapport during their Helsinki meeting.
“Look, the fact is we got along well,” he told CNBC, adding that the two did not agree on everything.
“So I had a meeting that lasted for more than two hours. It wasn’t always conciliatory in that meeting,” Trump said, without elaborating. “We discussed lots of great things for both countries, frankly.”
Five days after the Helsinki meeting, U.S. officials and lawmakers remained in the dark about what the leaders discussed in their two-hour, one-on-one session with only interpreters present.
Trump listed on Twitter the topics he and Putin talked about, but has not given details. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC Radio Australia on Thursday the two leaders “broke some ground across a broad range” of issues. He gave no details.
Conflicting messages from the White House this week added to the confusion after Trump’s overseas trip, during which he appeared to draw closer to Russia after alienating NATO allies.
Upon returning from Helsinki, Trump said he had misspoken at a joint news conference with Putin when he questioned why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 election.
On Wednesday, the White House said Trump’s answer of “no” to a reporter who asked if Russia was still targeting the United States was just his declining to answer questions.
On Thursday, after an outcry in Congress, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders issued a statement that Trump “disagrees” with Putin’s proposal to have Russian officials question Americans suspected of illegal activity by Moscow, including a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. She had said on Wednesday the proposal was being considered.
As American officials groped for information about the meeting, Moscow offered snippets of its version on Friday.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it sent detailed proposals to Washington on organizing the return of more than 1.7 million refugees to Syria after agreements reached by Putin and Trump, RIA news agency said.
The White House and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Syria proposals.
Putin also made concrete proposals to Trump about resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Interfax news agency reported, citing Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov. He did not spell out what they were.
The ambassador said Russia is ready to discuss a proposed new meeting between Putin and Trump, Interfax said.
American intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia carried out a campaign of hacking and propaganda targeting the 2016 U.S. election, seeking to sow discord and disparage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Putin has denied any such meddling. Angered by a federal Russia probe that is also examining whether Trump’s election campaign worked with Moscow, Trump has long denied any collusion and has denounced the investigation as a witch hunt.
Top U.S. intelligence officials have said Moscow is targeting congressional elections in November as well.
‘TRUMP GOT PLAYED’
Illustrating the gulf between Trump and some of his own advisers, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said on Thursday that he did not know what Trump and Putin discussed in their private meeting.
Coats learned of the proposed second meeting with Putin when the White House announced it on Twitter, while he was being interviewed at the Aspen conference.
With the fallout from the Putin meeting matching or eclipsing previous controversies in Trump’s turbulent 18-month presidency, critics of his performance in Helsinki included many fellow Republicans.
A Republican congressman and former CIA officer, William Hurd, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times late on Thursday entitled, “Trump is Being Manipulated by Putin. What should we do?”
“There are a number of us who warned about this,” Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Friday on MSNBC. “Trump got played, he got played for a fool and he embarrassed our country and frankly embarrassed lots of my colleagues across the board – Democrats, Republicans alike.”
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, Andrey Ostroukh and Vladimir Soldatkinin in Moscow; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry