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Trump-Putin summit: Russian premier says 'never interfered in US election'; US president calls meddling probe a 'disaster'

Clearing the air over what Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Donald Trump probably discussed at the Helsinki Summit on Monday, Putin said Moscow never interfered in the US electoral process during a joint press conference after talks with his US counterpart. The Russian premier also said that there were no "objective reasons" for tensions in US-Russia ties, speaking after several hours of talks with Trump.

"Trump touched on the theme of Russian interference in American elections. I had to repeat what I have already said many times before: The Russian State has never interfered and is not planning to interfere in the USA's internal affairs," Putin said.

"It is obvious to everyone that bilateral ties are going through a difficult period. However there are no objective reasons for these difficulties, the current tense atmosphere," Putin told a news conference in Helsinki.

 Trump-Putin summit: Russian premier says never interfered in US election; US president calls meddling probe a disaster

US president Donald Trump, left and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Monday. AP

Trump, on the other hand, declared, standing alongside Putin, that an investigation into Moscow's alleged meddling in his election had been a "disaster" for the United States. "We ran a brilliant campaign and that's why I'm president," Trump said, once again firmly denying allegations that Russian hacking and propaganda assisted him in his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton.

Trump said he had spent "a great deal of time" pressing Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about election meddling at summit talks. "During Monday's meeting, I addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person," Trump told a joint news conference.

"Spent a great deal of time talking about it, and President Putin may very well want to address it and very strongly. He feels very strongly about it and he has an interesting idea," he said without elaborating.

Calling the talks with Putin "open, direct and deeply productive", Trump said, "Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that," Trump told a Helsinki news conference after a day of talks with Putin.

On being asked about the discussion on Syria, Trump said, "Our militaries have probably got along better than our political leaders for years."Putin said a crucial issue in Syria is the “huge amount of refugees” in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. About the elections, Putin also said,“I wanted Trump to win because he spoke about normalising Russian relations.”

Both leaders agreed there was no collusion. When a US reporter asked Putin about claims Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, Trump defended his election victory. Later, Putin said: “Where did you get the idea that Trump trusts me or I trust him?” The Russian president said that they are looking for “points of contact” and that the presidents are looking for a way to reconcile their differences. Putin said he's willing to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller make an official request that Russia interrogate those indicted for election meddling in the US. But in exchange, says Russia would expect US to question Americans that Russia charges with illegal actions against it.

Putin said in the negotiations they outlined “first steps for improving this relationship and to restore an acceptable level of trust”. The Russian premier said Russia and US interests don’t always agree but “the overlapping interests abound.” He added that they are “glad” issues with North Korea “are starting to resolve.”

On Monday, Trump and Putin held a historic summit vowing their determination to forge a reset of troubled relations between the world's greatest nuclear powers. Trump, bent on forging a personal bond with the Kremlin chief despite allegations of Russian meddling in US politics, went into the summit blaming the "stupidity" of his predecessors for plunging ties to their present low.

"I think it's a good start: very, very good start for everybody," the US leader told reporters after meeting Putin for more than two hours with just their interpreters present, and just before they were joined by their national security teams. Many in Washington were agog at Trump's decision to sit one-on-one with Putin, a former KGB spymaster, worried about what he might bargain away after previously cosying up to the autocratic leaders of China and North Korea.

Indeed, some domestic critics wanted the Helsinki summit called off entirely after 12 Russian military agents were indicted under a long-running probe into Moscow's alleged manipulation of the 2016 US elections. But Trump, convinced his unique brand of diplomacy can make inroads with Putin, pressed ahead and looked forward to "having an extraordinary relationship" as the pair sat down to discuss everything from Syria, Ukraine and China to trade tariffs and the size of their nuclear arsenals.

Putin, basking in congratulations from Trump and other world leaders for the successful staging of the World Cup in Russia, said: "The time has come to talk in a substantive way about our relations and problem areas of the world." Trump added: "Frankly, we have not been getting along for the last number of years. And I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers."

'We'll do fine' 

Shortly before the summit opened, Trump was asked if he would press Putin over Russia's alleged manipulation of the election that brought the mercurial property tycoon to power 18 months ago. He said only: "We'll do just fine." But there are many points of friction that could yet spoil Trump's hoped-for friendship with his wily opposite number, who has run Russia for 18 years.

Trump began the day by firing a Twitter broadside at his domestic opponents, blaming the diplomatic chill on the investigation into alleged Russian election meddling. "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 tweeted. Russia's foreign ministry tweeted in response: "We agree."

Trump's US opponents tried, in turn, to gain traction for the sarcastic hashtag lampooning his reluctance to criticise the Kremlin: #BAF (Blame America First).

'Fake news' 

After a stormy NATO summit in Brussels last week, Trump was accused by critics of prioritising his ties to Putin over the transatlantic alliance. But over breakfast with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, he insisted NATO "has never been stronger" and "never been more together" thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.

In a weekend interview with CBS News, Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals. The Kremlin has also played down hopes that the odd couple will emerge from their first formal one-on-one summit with a breakthrough.

Indeed, after the bad-tempered NATO summit and a contentious trip by Trump to Britain, anxious European leaders may be relieved if not much comes out of the Helsinki meeting. Those leaders are already fuming over Trump's imposition of trade tariffs on various countries, including Russia.

Turning the tables, European Union president Donald Tusk said Trump was guilty of "spreading fake news" with his remark about foes, and warned that the trade tensions could spiral into violent "conflict and chaos". "Europe and China, America and Russia, today in Beijing and in Helsinki, are jointly responsible for improving the world order, not for destroying it," he tweeted. "I hope this message reaches Helsinki."

Protesters have been on the streets of Helsinki to denounce the policies of both Trump and Putin. Greenpeace draped a giant banner down a church tower urging: "Warm our hearts not our planet."

 Giving ground? 

Trump is also under pressure from Britain to press Putin over the nerve agent poisoning of four people in southern England. One of the victims, Dawn Sturgess, has died and her 19-year-old son Ewan Hope told the Sunday Mirror newspaper: "We need to get justice for my mum."

But US allies and many at home fear that Trump will fail to stand up to Putin. Trump has refused to personally commit to the US refusal to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea, leaving open the possibility of a climbdown linked to a promise by Putin to somehow rein in Iranian influence in Syria.

With inputs from AFP

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Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 22:43:41 IST