Donald Trump has hailed Vladimir Putin as “very, very strong” despite facing a barrage of criticism for suggesting he trusted the Russian leader over his own intelligence agencies.
The US president returned to Washington on Monday night after being accused of “treasonous” behaviour during a news conference with his Russian counterpart in Finland.
Mr Trump contradicted US investigators – who believe Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 presidential election – and said there was no reason for Moscow to meddle in the vote.
The two leaders gave separate interviews to Fox News following their Helsinki summit, in which Mr Putin said it is “utterly ridiculous” to suggest Russia could have influenced millions of American voters.
“Russia, as a state, has never interfered with the internal affairs of the United States, let alone its elections,” he said.
Mr Putin also denied having “compromising material” on Mr Trump and insisted the US leader was of “no interest” to Russia before he announced he would run for office.
“He was a rich person, but, well, there’s plenty of rich persons in the United States,” Mr Putin said.
Fox News presenter Chris Wallace tried to hand Mr Putin a copy of the indictment of 12 Russians charged last week with hacking offences but he motioned for the papers to be placed on a table instead.
Mr Trump defended Mr Putin following their joint news conference and said special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election had “driven a wedge” between America and Russia.
“Maybe we’ve just knocked down that wedge, but it has driven a wedge and President Putin said that,” Mr Trump told Fox News.
“(Mr Putin) said there was no collusion whatsoever. I guess he said it as strong as you can say it – they have no information on Trump.”
He added: “I thought President Putin was very, very strong.”
Senior Republican and Democratic politicians have strongly criticised Mr Trump’s defence of Russia in Helsinki.
Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.
He added: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump’s actions had “strengthened our adversaries while weakening our defences and those of our allies”.
House speaker and Republican Paul Ryan, who has been reluctant to criticise Mr Trump in recent months, said the president “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally”.
Meanwhile, John Brennan, CIA director between 2013 and 2017, said Mr Trump’s remarks were “nothing short of treasonous”.
He said: “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
From – SkyNews