President Donald Trump’s lengthy Asia trip yesterday wound down as it began, with a visit meant to be centred on trade and North Korea shadowed by questions about Russia.
Trump was in the Philippines, the final stop of his trip, poised to hold formal talks with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a bloody drug war that has featured extrajudicial killings and fears of vigilante justice. But Trump remains dogged by things he has said about Russia.
Days before he left for the five-nation Asia trip, Trump’s campaign chairman was indicted on charges he laundered millions of dollars through overseas shell companies and a campaign adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. And while White House aides have been pleased with the president’s messaging through stops in Japan, South Korea and China, Trump has brought Russia to the forefront again.
He tried to have it both ways yesterday on the issue of Russian interference in last year’s presidential race, saying he believes both the US intelligence agencies when they say Russia meddled and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sincerity in claiming that his country did not.
“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said of Putin at a news conference in Hanoi with Vietnam’s president.
“As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies,” Trump said. “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help the Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. A special counsel’s examination of potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides so far has led to indictments against Trump’s former campaign chairman and another top aide for crimes unrelated to the campaign, and a guilty plea from a Trump foreign policy adviser.
Multiple congressional committees are also investigating.
On Saturday, Trump lashed out at former heads of the US intelligence agencies, claiming there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious of their findings and dismissing them as “political hacks”.
John Brennan, the former CIA director, responded on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump was dismissing the former officials – himself included – as “political hacks” in an attempt to “delegitimise” the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election.
“I think Mr Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr Trump’s interest in being flattered. And also I think Mr Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations,” Brennan said.
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, called the threat from Russia “manifest and obvious”.
“To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country,” Clapper said on “State of the Union”.
Questions about whether Trump believes the assessment about Russian election-meddling have trailed him since January, when he said for the first time, shortly before taking office, that he accepted that Russia was behind the election-year hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.
Trump told reporters travelling with him to Hanoi that Putin had again vehemently denied the allegations. The two spoke during an economic conference in Danang, Vietnam. Trump danced around questions about whether he believed Putin. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that’. And I believe – I really believe – that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said.