U.S. President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)  

Trump Calls Mueller Probe ‘Disaster’ While Standing Next to Putin

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump called Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling a “disaster” on Monday, again questioned whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election that he won and suggested he equally trusted U.S. intelligence officials and Vladimir Putin -- all as he stood beside the Russian leader.

In a remarkable news conference following a summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki, both leaders challenged the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin meddled in the election and criticized the investigation into the interference, led by Mueller, that has resulted in indictments against more than two dozen Russians. The comments provoked a rare on-the-record rebuttal from Trump’s own intelligence director.

Putin said he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election but again denied his government had done anything to help the then-candidate.

In effect, the American and Russian presidents together aligned themselves against the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement establishment. There was swift and bipartisan condemnation of Trump in response, while Russian government officials and analysts delighted in the spectacle.

“The probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said of Mueller’s investigation after he was asked whether he holds Russia accountable at all for poor relations with the U.S. “It’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated.”

Trump said that “my people” including Dan Coats, his intelligence director “came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia.”

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he continued. “I have confidence in both parties.”

Coats fired back with a statement later in the day, saying the intelligence findings are “fact-based” and “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

Putin said that Trump had asked him about 12 Russian intelligence agents indicted in Mueller’s investigation on Friday and that he would “look into it.” While denying Moscow’s official involvement, he offered to allow Mueller to observe interrogations of the agents by Russian authorities.

The Russian leader deflected a reporter’s question on whether the Kremlin held compromising material on Trump, saying he “heard these rumors” but that when Trump visited the country prior his election “I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow.”

Swift Rebuke

Democrats and some Republican members of Congress who have been critical of Trump in the past rebuked the president.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Trump’s press conference “was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” He added that “the damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska blasted Trump’s statement blaming both sides for problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship as “bizarre and flat-out wrong.”

Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said on Twitter, “I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.”

John Brennan, who was CIA director under President Barack Obama and helped produce the intelligence reports that first found Russia meddled in the election, called Trump’s statements at the press conference “nothing short of treasonous.” He added that Trump “is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

Reaction from several Trump advisers varied. Some were aghast, predicting political fallout back home and that the backlash over the news conference would push the White House’s preferred narrative -- the strength of the economy; Trump’s Supreme Court nomination -- out of the news.

Others insisted Trump’s remarks were unsurprising, in-line with previous statements about Mueller’s probe -- he frequently criticizes it as a “witch hunt” -- and that the president wouldn’t be able to improve relations with Russia had he shamed Putin at the news conference.

Earlier Monday, Trump said in a tweet that Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s campaign meddling had harmed relations between the countries. A U.S. grand jury indicted the Russian agents on Friday for their alleged involvement in hacking email accounts controlled by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, casting a shadow over the Helsinki summit.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by tweet: “We agree.”

‘Addressed’ Interference

Trump said that he again “addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections” with the Russian leader during their meetings on Monday.

“I felt this was a message best delivered in person,” he said. The two leaders “spent a great deal of time talking about it,” he added.

Putin “felt very strongly about it and has an interesting idea,” Trump said.

Putin proposed an “expert council” to improve relations between the countries. He said he would allow Mueller to observe interviews of the 12 agents if Russian authorities were allowed to interview Americans including Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital chief executive who lobbied the U.S. government to adopt a law punishing Russian officials accused of human-rights abuses.

Browder has surrendered his American citizenship and is presently a British citizen, complicating the exchange Putin described. He called Putin “effectively a war criminal” in an interview with ABC News earlier on Monday.

“Once again President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference in the American elections,” Putin said. “I had to reiterate things I said several times. The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs including the election process.”

People close to the Kremlin were invariably delighted by the summit.

“This was the maximum we could have achieved and could mark the start of a resumption of regular cooperation,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian upper house of parliament.

Mueller’s Requests

Mueller already asked Russia for assistance in its case against a Russian entity charged with interfering in the U.S. election and didn’t receive a response, according to court filings.

The requests were made regarding Mueller’s indictment of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency in February for its role in manipulating social media to interfere in the election. The entity is fighting Mueller in U.S. court.

“The government has submitted service requests to the Russian government pursuant to a mutual legal assistance treaty,” according to a filing by Mueller on July 6. “To the government’s knowledge, no further steps have been taken within Russia to effectuate service.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.