Questions about Russian meddling follow Trump to Asia
Questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election have followed President Donald Trump overseas to Asia.
Trump said during a news conference Sunday in Vietnam's capital that he believes U.S. intelligence agencies, which have concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help him win. But Trump also says he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when Putin claims his country did no such thing.
"I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said of Putin at a news conference with Vietnam's president in Hanoi. "As to whether I believe it, I'm with our agencies."
He added, "As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies."
Top U.S. intelligence officials, including those at the CIA, have concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help the Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. A special counsel and multiple Congressional committees are also investigating potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides. That probe has so far led to the indictments of Trump's former campaign chairman and another top aide for financial and other crimes unrelated to the campaign, as well as a guilty plea from a Trump foreign policy adviser.
Trump's comment came shortly before he took off for the Philippines, the final stop of his five-country maiden trip to Asia. Trump is slated to attend a pair of international summits over the next two days as well as meet with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte several times while in Manila.
Duterte has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups for overseeing a violent drug war complete with extrajudicial killings. Trump has previously praised Duterte's handling of his nation's drug problems.
Questions about whether Trump believed the intelligence community's conclusion about Russian election meddling have trailed Trump since January, when he said for the first time at a news conference shortly before taking office that he accepted Russia was behind the election year hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.
But the issue wasn't settled.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday on his way to Hanoi, Trump had said that Putin again vehemently denied the allegations — this time on the sidelines of an economic conference in the seaside city of Danang. Trump danced around questions of whether he believed Putin, but stressed Putin's denials. He also accused Democrats of using the issue to try to sabotage relations between the two countries, putting lives at risk.
"Every time he sees me, he said: 'I didn't do that.' And I believe — I really believe — that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump said, arguing that it made no sense for him to belabor the issue when Russia could be helpful to the U.S. in dealing with North Korea, Syria and other places.
Trump also lashed out Saturday at the former heads of the nation's intelligence agencies, claiming there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of their findings. "I mean, give me a break. They're political hacks," Trump said.
In a tweet sent Sunday from Hanoi, Trump bashed the "haters and fools" he said were questioning his efforts to improve relations with Russia and accused critics of "playing politics" and hurting the country.
Trump's Saturday comments sparked criticism from lawmakers with ties to the intelligence community.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the party's presidential nominee in 2008, said in a statement that Trump's faith in Putin's denial was "naive."
"There's nothing 'America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community," McCain wrote, referring to Putin's former career in Soviet intelligence. "Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart."
Trump, in the Hanoi news conference, also pointed to sanctions that have been imposed on Russia as punishment for their meddling in the election. "They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently," he said. "It's now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken."
A day before leaving for Manila, Trump had acknowledged his warm relationships with many authoritarian leaders — but said that he has great relationships with everyone.
"I'll be honest with you, I think I have a great relationship with every person in that room today," he said after leaving the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
Trump said he felt some obligation to raise issues of human rights abuses during his travels. "But I also raise issues on many other things," he said.
Trump was originally slated to depart Manila for Washington on Monday but opted to extend his trip a day amid criticism that he would be departing before the East Asia Summit.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Lemire and Colvin on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire and http://twitter.com/@colvinj
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