President Donald Trump’s attempt to make light of Russia’s meddling in US elections has drawn a fierce backlash in the US.
A two-year probe into a Moscow-run influence campaign that boosted Trump’s candidacy has clouded his presidency since it began, frustrating the Republican president, who has said he seeks better relations with Russia.
Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to reporters in Osaka, Japan, on Friday ahead of their first formal face-to-face meeting since a controversial summit in Helsinki last July and the mid-April release of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election meddling.
Asked by reporters if he would raise the issue during their meeting, held on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit, Mr Trump said: “Yes, of course I will,” drawing a laugh from Mr Putin.
Mr Trump then turned to Mr Putin to give the directive twice, as he wagged a finger at the Russian leader.
“Don’t meddle in the election, please,” Mr Trump said.
— POLITICO (@politico) June 29, 2019
Mr Trump’s critics have accused him of being too friendly with Mr Putin and castigated him for not publicly confronting the Russian leader in Helsinki after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian operatives hacked into Democratic Party computers and used fake social media accounts to attack his 2016 opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
His attempt to make light of the situation on Friday prompted a fierce response.
“Russia attacked our democracy in a plot to artificially place Trump into the Oval Office. That is not a laughing matter,” House of Representatives Democratic caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries tweeted.
Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia under Mr Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, said Mr Trump’s deference to Mr Putin was “disappointing but no longer shocking”.
Why does Trump so desire Putin’s approval? There is something so unnatural, strange, and troubling about his fealty before Putin, especially when he is in Putin’s presence.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) June 28, 2019
Mr Mueller found that Russia meddled in the election, but that there was insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign illegally conspired with Moscow.
The Kremlin has denied any meddling.
Mr Putin has said he backed Mr Trump, while Mr Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Mueller probe as a hoax and a witch hunt.
Former US president Jimmy Carter on Friday said a full investigation “would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016…. He was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf,” according to a report in USA Today.
Trump’s attempt to lighten mood sours
In Osaka, further attempting to lighten the mood, Mr Trump sought common ground with Mr Putin at the expense of journalists gathered to cover the leaders at the outset of their meeting.
“Get rid of them. ‘Fake news’ is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,” Mr Trump said.
To which Mr Putin responded, in English: “We also have. It’s the same.”
The joke drew harsh rebukes stateside, where journalists were noting the one-year anniversary of the deaths of five US journalists at a Maryland newspaper.
US-Russia relations have been sour for years, worsening after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war.
In a recent television interview, Mr Putin said that relations were “getting worse and worse”.
Mr Trump has sought to turn the page and work with Mr Putin on issues such as reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
On Friday, Mr Trump called it “a great honour” to meet with his Russian counterpart.
The two were scheduled to meet at the last G20 in November, but Mr Trump cancelled, citing Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian navy ships and sailors.
The two spoke informally at the event and at a lunch in Paris earlier that month.
“We’ve had great meetings. We’ve had a very, very good relationship,” Mr Trump said on Friday.
“And we look forward to spending some very good time together.”
Trump is practically begging Putin to fix the 2020 election for him. @senatemajldr – now would be a good time to stop playing partisan games with our democracy and pass the #SAFEAct. https://t.co/0nn9WTkDRm
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) June 29, 2019
Democrats chided Mr Trump for not being more forceful with Mr Putin ahead of the November 2020 US presidential election, in which Mr Trump is seeking a second term.
“Russian interference in our democracy should concern every American,” tweeted US House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat.
“If we don’t act to secure 2020 against further interference, Putin will have the last laugh.”