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Sens. Portman, Brown critical of Trump's actions in Finland

By Eli Stokols and Sabra Ayres • Jul 16, 2018 at 5:30 PM

HELSINKI, Finland — President Donald Trump slammed the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign’s possible election collusion with Russia during a stunning news conference Monday alongside President Vladimir Putin, and he blamed the United States for relations with Moscow that he said have “never been worse.”

When Trump was asked by a U.S. reporter whether he believes Putin, who again denied Russian interference in the 2016 election, or his own intelligence officials, who unanimously say Russia did intervene for Trump, Trump replied by criticizing the FBI’s probe of Democrats and said, “I don’t see any reason why” Russia would interfere.

More than once he condemned the probe of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which on Friday brought indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officials, calling it “a disaster for our country.”

Trump spoke yet again about his clear Electoral College win over Hillary Clinton and lamented the “cloud” the investigation has cast over his victory. When Putin was asked why Americans should believe his denials, Trump first answered for him, falsely saying that the Russia probe only came about because Democrats were looking for an excuse for their loss.

Putin, in turn, offered his own, somewhat surreal response to the question that had been intended for him.

“As for who to believe, who you can’t believe, can you believe at all — you can’t believe anyone,” Putin said, dismissing the U.S. intelligence findings and the Mueller probe as based on “rumors.” He added, “There’s no evidence when it comes to the actual facts.”

Putin did not shy away from the question of whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election.

“Yes, I did,” he said, as Trump smiled beside him.

Putin, again in answer to a U.S. reporter’s question, didn’t directly deny that Russia had compromising material on Trump, but instead deflected. He said he’d heard “these rumors” that Moscow had gathered embarrassing material while Trump was there in 2013, and added that people should “disregard” them.

Earlier, Trump declared a “very good start” to his meetings with Putin after they were alone together about two hours — just after he blamed the United States for the frosty state of relations between the two countries.

“I think it’s a good start. Very, very good start for everybody,” Trump told reporters as the two leaders joined aides for a working lunch.

“Everybody” will have to accept the president’s word for that because only translators sat in with them, to the consternation of even some administration officials. Before their private session, Trump said to Putin, offering his hand, “We have a lot of questions, and hopefully we’ll come up with answers. It’s great to be with you.”

Among the issues discussed, he listed trade, nuclear weapons and China, making no mention of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, the poisoning of people in Britain by a Russian nerve agent or the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

“We have not been getting along,” Trump said, “but I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.”

“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he added.

Putin said little, offering a more casual, almost indifferent demeanor as Trump spoke. He said he looked forward to “continuing the dialogue we have started.”

Ohio’s two senators were critical of president’s actions in Finland.

“The president’s comments in today’s press conference were troubling,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said. “He failed to stand up to Vladimir Putin on some of the most critical security issues facing our country and our allies. There is a consensus in the intelligence community that Russia meddled in our elections and continues to try to destabilize democracies around the world. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. When given the opportunity, President Trump did not hold President Putin to task for election meddling, for the illegal annexation of Crimea, or for the continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine.

“I believe the United States must be matter of fact and transparent,” Portman added. “We all want to see a better relationship between our two countries, but we must make clear directly to President Putin and to the world that Russia’s actions on the world stage are unacceptable and a change in their behavior is necessary in order to improve relations. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and with this administration to do so.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also expressed dismay.

“The intelligence experts we trust to keep America safe have said that Russia continues to threaten our democracy and our critical infrastructure, and the President missed an opportunity to do something about it,” Brown said. “The Ukrainian community in Ohio knows all too well the dangers of unchecked Russian aggression. We must demand Russia turn over the spies who hacked our election and show Putin we will not put up with threats to our infrastructure that undercut our democratic institutions.”

Brown joined a group of top Democratic senators last week urging Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin if he was not prepared to press the Russian president on his election meddling and push him to hand over the 12 recently indicted Kremlin intelligence officials.

Trump and Putin were scheduled to meet for 90 minutes, with only interpreters in the room, at Finland’s presidential palace, an ornate yellow-colored building adjacent to the city’s harbor.

Putin, as he often has in meetings with other foreign leaders, arrived 45 minutes late, his plane touching down at the time when his first meeting with Trump was originally scheduled to begin.

Following the meetings, the two leaders were scheduled to hold a joint news conference, although it’s unclear if they will take questions from reporters or simply make statements.

Trump, who has sought a better relationship with the Russian autocrat, has casually lowered expectations for Monday’s talks and been remarkably open about not having a clear agenda, even as he’s mentioned several discussion topics he plans to bring up.

On Monday morning, he fired off a tweet blaming the U.S. for the poor state of relations between the two countries.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “liked” the tweet from its official account — not a surprise, given Trump’s eagerness to blame the U.S. government, not Putin, who sanctioned Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials.

Hours later, shortly after Putin’s plane touched down in Helsinki, the same Russian account retweeted Trump’s statement with the comment: “We agree.”

Dating back to his presidential campaign, Trump has raised eyebrows with his approach to Putin, offering comments notably more conciliatory than those typical of American politicians. His statements about the Russian have stood in stark contrast to his often harsh and insulting rhetoric toward other world leaders and his political adversaries in both parties.

Trump has not tempered his positive tone toward Putin even amid a special counsel investigation into possible collusion by his campaign associates with Russians during the 2016 presidential race. Rather, Trump has blamed the probe, which he has labeled a “witch hunt,” for being an impediment to improved relations with Russia.

Since taking office, Trump has made a pattern of cutting against the grain of his own aides and the U.S. intelligence community on the subject of Russia. In March, Trump ignored a specific warning from his national security advisors not to congratulate Putin on his reelection during a phone call. The Russian election took place in an environment of state-controlled news media and with Putin’s most prominent opponent barred from the ballot.

On Sunday, he tweeted to congratulate Putin again, this time for hosting the World Cup soccer tournament.

During an Oval Office meeting last year with Russia’s foreign minister, Trump inadvertently revealed classified intelligence from an Israeli source.

And Trump’s consistently strident stance toward NATO allies — he threatened to withdraw from NATO during last week’s summit unless other member nations upped their defense spending, and labeled the European Union a trading “foe” in a weekend interview — stands to benefit Putin, who views a unified West as the main impediment to his expansionist aims.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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