Standing side-by-side with Vladimir Putin, United States President Donald Trump has refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 elections, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of criticism at home.
- Donald Trump says of Vladimir Putin, "I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship"
- US senators called Mr Trump's approach "shameful" and "weak"
- Both presidents again denied any Russian involvement in the US elections
On a day when he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Mr Trump said not a single critical word about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Instead, he denounced the "stupidity" of his own country's policy, especially the decision to investigate election interference following the findings of US intelligence agencies.
A prosecutor announced an indictment three days ago of Russian spies for hacking into Democratic Party networks.
Mr Trump's performance at a joint media conference in Helsinki stirred a wave of condemnation in the United States, where the White House has struggled for months to dispel a suggestion that Mr Trump was unwilling to stand up to Mr Putin.
His performance was denounced as "treasonous" by a former CIA chief and condemned as "shameful" by a Republican senator, although some other Republicans were more cautious.
Asked if he believed US intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump said he was not convinced.
"I don't see any reason why it would be," Mr Trump said.
"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
External Link: 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.
In one response, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump nominee approved by Congress, said in a statement:
"We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."
'We ran a brilliant campaign and that's why I'm President'
Mr Trump, in opening remarks, said that US-Russia relations had been at their lowest point until the two sat down face-to-face in a highly-anticipated summit.
"That changed as of about four hours ago," Mr Trump said.
External Link: Donald Trump on Twitter: As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the worlds two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! #HELSINKI2018
"I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship … I really think the world wants to see us get along."
Mr Trump also continued to deny that there had been any other collusion between his campaign and Russians, declaring: "We ran a brilliant campaign and that's why I'm President."
The summit began just hours after Mr Trump blamed the United States — and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea — for a low-point in US-Russia relations.
The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.
"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse," Mr Trump tweeted yesterday, blaming "many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"
The Russian foreign ministry responded by liking Mr Trump's tweet and then replying: "We agree."
'The time has come to have a thorough discussion'
The summit, which is being closely watched around the world, was not the first time Mr Trump and Mr Putin have held talks.
They met on the sidelines of world leader meetings in Germany and Vietnam last year.
Mr Putin said he and Mr Trump have maintained regular contact through phone calls and meetings at international events, but "the time has come to have a thorough discussion on various international problems and sensitive issues".
He added, "there are quite a few of them for us to pay attention to".
But Monday's session was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the US indictment last week of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers.
The pair opened their long-awaited summit with a wink and slouch, respectively, then talked one-on-one behind closed doors before the American leader declared their meeting was off to a "very, very good start for everybody".
Their opening session had been scheduled to run 90 minutes.
The Russians said it lasted two hours and 10 minutes.
After the private meeting, discussions continued with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in a room called the Hall of Mirrors, which was once the emperor's throne room.
Then came the joint news conference.
Out on the streets, the summit attracted a grab-bag of protesters, with abortion-rights activists wearing artificially bulging bellies and Trump masks, anti-fascist protesters bearing signs with expletive-laden insults, and free traders, anti-war Ukrainians and gay rights supporters making their voices heard.