DANANG, Vietnam (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said he believed President Vladimir Putin when he denied accusations that Russia meddled in last year’s U.S. election, despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.
Trump made the comment after he and Putin met briefly at a summit in Vietnam on Saturday and agreed on a joint statement supporting a political solution for Syria, now in its seventh year of civil war.
It was the first encounter of the two leaders since July and came during a low in U.S.-Russia relations and at a time when Trump is haunted by an investigation into accusations that Putin influenced the election that brought him to the White House.
Putin reiterated the denials of interference, Trump said.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that, when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the resort of Danang.
“I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump said.
Trump has called allegations of campaign collusion with Moscow a hoax. A special counsel, Robert Mueller, is conducting a probe that has led to charges against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates.
U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded Russians interfered to tip the election in Trump’s favour through hacking and releasing emails to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and spreading social media propaganda.
On Saturday, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said Trump has been informed of the conclusions showing Russia’s meddling.
“President Trump was presented with clear and indisputable evidence that Russia interfered in the election.” Clapper told Reuters. Clapper was the national intelligence director when his office in January released the conclusion reached by the CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency that Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election told Reuters.
“The fact that the President would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable,” Clapper said.
Russia has repeatedly denied meddling.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, took Trump to task over his comments about Putin, using the “America First” phrase that Trump invoked at the APEC summit in laying out his trade priorities.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” McCain said in a statement. Putin is a former KGB officer and ex-head of Russia’s FSB security service.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, which is investigating the issue, accused Trump of siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The President fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail,” Schiff said in a statement.
In Danang, Putin told reporters that an alleged link between Manafort and Russia was fabricated by Trump’s opponents.
Putin dismissed suggestions Russia influenced the elections through political advertising. Tech companies, including Facebook, have said some Russian-bought political content spread on their platforms around the time.
“There is no confirmation of our mass media meddling in election campaigns – and there can’t be any,” Putin said.
Trump, who had emphasized on the 2016 campaign trail that it would be nice if the United States and Russia could work together, made this case again on Saturday. He said it would benefit Washington to have good ties with Moscow so they could work together on issues including Syria’s civil war, the conflict in Ukraine and the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“Look, I can’t stand there and argue with him, I would rather have him get out of Syria,” Trump said. “I would rather ... get to work with him on the Ukraine rather than standing and arguing.”
In Vietnam, Trump and Putin agreed a joint statement that said there was no military solution to the Syrian conflict, pledged to continue “de-confliction” to ensure the U.S. and Russian militaries do not clash there, and pledged new support for the U.N.-backed “Geneva process,” which has failed to find a political solution to end the conflict.
Russia has militarily supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the United States has at times backed Syrian rebels against him, though the recent U.S. focus has been on defeating the Islamic State militant group that had seized parts of Syria.
With Islamic State having suffered losses in Syria, Iraq and beyond, greater attention is turning to the broader conflict between Assad’s forces and rebel factions.
Trump hailed the joint statement.
“We did it very quickly,” he told reporters. “We seem to have a very good feeling for each other, a good relationship considering we don’t know each other well.”
After their meeting, Putin described Trump as “a well-mannered person and comfortable to deal with.”
Trump and Putin were seen chatting amicably as they walked to the position where the traditional APEC summit photo was being taken at a viewpoint looking over the South China Sea.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Danang, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Mark Hosenball and Mike Stone in Washington; Writing by Matthew Tostevin and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler