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Trump careens off script on Russia after Putin meeting

DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump stayed on script for more than a week as he crisscrossed through Asia — and then Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up.

After chatting with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here, Trump abandoned the diplomatic tone the White House had carefully scripted for his five-country tour, once again contradicting the overwhelming consensus among current and former U.S. officials that the Russian leader manipulated the 2016 election.

In a 26-minute question-and-answer session with reporters aboard Air Force One, the president managed to dismiss probes into whether his campaign colluded with Russia as an “artificial Democratic hit job,” said he believed Putin’s insistence that Russia did not attempt to interfere in the 2016 electon, and warned that the continued focus on Russian election meddling risks lives.

The president’s comments immediately reignited the politically volatile debate over Russia’s alleged efforts to propel Trump into the White House — and distracted from the administration’s Asia messaging.

“I am disturbed that our president believes a KGB agent and continues to refuse to believe the CIA. I can never remember a time in our history when this was so. I hope Trump’s national security team will be more forceful in convincing the president of the basic facts of Russia’s violation of our sovereignty last year,” said Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

Sen. John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, was unsparing in his criticism of Trump’s remarks, dismissing them as naive and dangerous.

“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community. There’s no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous Assad regime, which remains the greatest obstacle to a political solution that would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria,” he said in a statement. “Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”

Despite the unified assessment of the U.S. intelligence community — including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser Thomas Bossert, who have said they support the conclusion that Russian sought to manipulate the election — Trump said 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. ”But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he is very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth. Don’t forget. All he said was he never did that, he 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.

“The worst part of this is not that Trump takes Putin’s word over the evidence based analysis of his own intelligence agencies. It is not even that he plays the role of a useful idiot as he kowtows to Putin yet again. The worst part, by far, is that a hostile power is engaged in an ongoing attack on America’s political system and Trump is deliberately stripping the nation’s defenses bare and leaving us exposed to future assaults. It is unilateral disarmament plain and simple,” said Thomas Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and an expert in national security. “We have never seen this type of weakness in a U.S. president before.”

Mike Morrell, former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, described the president’s remarks as “a setback to the relationship between the IC and its president.”

“I would never trust Putin’s word over the considered, high-confidence judgment of the Intelligence Community. Putin is a trained liar and manipulator. He’s comes across as believable because he is so good at deception. And, the President is biting hook, line, and sinker,” he said. “Much progress had been made in that relationship since the early days, but this will most definitely will be a step backward.”

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.”’

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