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Trump under fire after Putin meet

HELSINKI (AP) – In an extraordinary embrace of a longtime US enemy, President Donald Trump on Monday openly questioned his own intelligence agencies’ firm finding that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election to his benefit, seeming to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Moscow’s hands were clean.

The reaction back home was immediate and visceral, among fellow Republicans as well as usual Trump critics. “Shameful,” ‘‘disgraceful,” ‘‘weak,” were a few of the comments. Makes the US “look like a pushover,” said GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki was his first time sharing the international stage with a man he has described as an important US competitor – but whom he has also praised a strong, effective leader.

His remarks, siding with a foe on foreign soil over his own government, was a stark illustration of Trump’s willingness to upend decades of US foreign policy and rattle Western allies in service of his political concerns. A wary and robust stance toward Russia has been a bedrock of his party’s world view. But Trump made clear he feels that any firm acknowledgement of Russia’s involvement would undermine the legitimacy of his election.

Standing alongside Putin, Trump steered clear of any confrontation with the Russian, going so far as to question American intelligence and last week’s federal indictments that accused 12 Russians of hacking into Democratic email accounts to hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

“He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said.

His skepticism drew a quick formal statement – almost a rebuttal – from Trump’s director of national Intelligence, Dan Coats.

“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,” Coats said.

Fellow GOP politicians have generally stuck with Trump during a year and a half of turmoil, but he was assailed as seldom before as he returned home Monday night from what he had hoped would be a proud summit with Putin.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was most outspoken, declaring that Trump made a “conscious choice to defend a tyrant” and achieved “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, who rarely criticizes Trump, stressed there was “no question” that Russia had interfered.

Even staunch Trump backer Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, called Trump’s comments “the most serious mistake of his presidency” and said they “must be corrected – immediately.”

In a Fox News Channel interview after the summit, Putin pronounced the meetings “the beginning of the path” back from the West’s past efforts to isolate Russia. “I think you see for yourself that these efforts failed, and they were never bound to succeed,” he said.

As he flew home to Washington aboard Air Force One, Trump tried to clarify his position via tweet, saying: “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 world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”

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