DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump on Saturday called into question the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to influence last year’s presidential election, while raising concerns that the intense focus on the issue could sour U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin.
Pressed by reporters, Trump didn’t directly say whether he personally believed Putin was involved in the alleged election meddling. But he suggested he takes the Russian president at his word when he denies directing the influence campaign.
“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 said, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi, Vietnam. ”But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Trump dismissed the meddling allegations as driven by Democrats, warning that the heavy focus on the issue threatens the United States’ ability to partner with Russia on key issues. He asserted that the allegations could fray the U.S.-Russia relationship so badly that the country could be less willing to cooperate on North Korea, Syria and other international crises — an outcome that would put lives at risk.
“This artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way and that’s a shame because people will die because of it,” he said. “And it’s a pure hit job.”
“Everybody knows there was no collusion,” he continued. “I think it’s a shame that something like this can destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries that are very important countries Russia could really help us.”
The president said Putin again denied that he had a role in the effort to influence the election during a few brief conversations that the two leaders had on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
“He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump said, adding that he and Putin, “have the potential to have a very good relationship.”
American intelligence agencies have said Russia interfered in the election with the goal of boosting Trump and defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The agencies have also said they have “high confidence” that Putin directed the effort.
Trump said he and Putin had “two or three very short conversations” during the APEC summit. The White House had previously said the two leaders would not hold a formal meeting.
Putin and Trump largely focused on Syria during their chats, according to the president.
Following the discussions, the U.S. and Russia released a joint statement on Saturday in which they “confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria.”
Trump later declined to say whether embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore should resign, adding that he doesn’t know enough about the allegations to weigh in. Moore has been accused of initiating sexual contact with teenagers decades ago.
“Well again, I’ve been with you folks, so I haven’t gotten to see too much,” he said. “And believe it or not, even when I’m in Washington or New York, I do not watch much television. I know they like to say that.”