President Trump’s highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin began on Monday in Helsinki. Both leaders made public remarks with translators before entering a private discussion. Trump repeatedly expressed optimism the talks would yield positive results.
“I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly, have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” Trump said, later adding, “I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.”
While Trump outlined several topics that he hoped the pair would discuss, he did not bring up Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. America’s intelligence agencies have all concluded Putin’s government conducted a hacking and social media campaign designed to boost Trump and hurt his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. On Friday, the Department of Justice announced indictments against 12 officers in Putin’s intelligence services and accused them of involvement in the campaign cyberattacks. Putin has denied Russia attempted to interfere in the U.S. election.
Putin was about an hour late to the meeting. The pair stood next to each other for photos before sitting in adjacent chairs. They did not shake hands at the outset of their public remarks.
The Russian president spoke first and his comments were far briefer than Trump’s. He declared, “The time has come to talk in a substantive way.”
In the hours leading up to the meeting, Trump sent a pair of tweets criticizing the U.S. investigation into Russian interference in the election as a “Rigged Witch Hunt.” A team lead by special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting the investigation that filed the charges last week against the Russian intelligence officers. Mueller’s probe has also led to charges against multiple former members of Trump’s campaign, and investigators are looking into whether anyone on the president’s team worked with the Russians.
Trump has vehemently denied anyone in his orbit colluded with the Russians. In his first tweet on Monday, Trump criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for not doing more in 2016 to address initial reports of Russian interference. Trump also pointed to the involvement of Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who was found to have expressed anti-Trump sentiment in private during the election, as proof the probe is biased and “rigged” against him.
“President Obama thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election, so when he was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it. When I won it became a big deal and the Rigged Witch Hunt headed by Strzok!” Trump wrote.
Trump went on to claim the Mueller probe was part of a pattern of “stupidity” that hurt U.S. relations with Russia.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” said Trump.
Russia’s foreign ministry later took to Twitter to tout Trump’s message. “We agree,” it said.
Sitting next to Putin in Helsinki, Trump started his remarks by congratulating the Russian president on the World Cup. This year, Russia hosted the quadrennial soccer tournament, which France won on Sunday.
“First of all, Mr. President, I’d like to congratulate you on a really great World Cup, one of the best ever from what everybody tells me, one of the best ever. And also, for your team itself doing so well,” Trump said to Putin.
“I watched quite a bit — in the United States we call it soccer — and I watched quite a bit of it and I watched the entire final and the semifinals,” said Trump. “They were really spectacular games, but it was beautifully done, so congratulations on that.”
Trump outlined a series of topics he hoped to discuss with Putin.
“Most importantly, we have a lot of good things to talk about. … We have discussions on everything from trade, to military, to missiles, to nuclear, to China. … We’ll be talking a little bit about China, our mutual friend President Xi,” Trump said.
Trump went on to express his hope the pair would “end up having an extraordinary relationship.” The president noted that he has repeatedly said he’d like to improve relations with Russia.
“I’ve been saying — and I’m sure you’ve heard over the years — and as I campaigned, that getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” said Trump.
Trump’s past comments praising Putin and calling for improved ties to Russia have been widely scrutinized in light of the cyberattacks during the election.
The American president also said he’d like to “do something” about the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.
“I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90 percent of the nuclear [weapons], and that’s not a good thing. It’s a bad thing,” Trump said. “I think we hopefully can do something about that because it’s not a positive force. It’s a negative force. So, we’ll be talking about that among other things.”
While Trump spoke, Putin slouched in his chair and watched his American counterpart with his head leaning on one hand. As Trump concluded his remarks, the pair turned towards each other and shook hands.
“And with that, the world awaits and I look forward to our personal discussion, which I think begins now,” Trump said, adding, “We all have a lot of questions and hopefully we’ll come up with answers. Most importantly, it’s great to be with you.”
Reporters were ushered out of the room after the pair of presidents made their opening remarks. Before they left, one reporter shouted a question about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election. Trump and Putin did not respond, but according to the White House press pool, the Russian president “appeared to smirk” when he heard the question.
Trump and Putin were originally scheduled to talk for an hour and a half, including time spent alone with their translators and meetings with staff. After those meetings, the American and Russian groups participated in a working lunch with both presidents. According to Russian officials, the meetings before the meal lasted two hours and ten minutes. The White House would not confirm this figure. As they sat down to eat, Trump responded to a reporter’s shouted question asking how he felt about the talks.
“I think it’s a good start. Very, very good start for everybody,” Trump said.
Trump and Putin are set to hold a joint press conference after their lunch.
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