BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — National security adviser John Bolton on Sunday defended President Trump's decision to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this month as a way to get beyond the “political noise” that has consumed Washington over the ongoing investigation of Russian election interference.
“He wants to understand the Russian position, but, more importantly, he wants Putin to understand our position,” Bolton said. “Let them discuss these issues and see exactly where there might be room for progress or where we find there is no room at all.”
Trump is scheduled to meet with Putin on July 16, several days after he stops in Brussels for a NATO summit. The president has been critical of NATO, suggesting other member nations do not contribute enough to the alliance and the United States carries too much of the burden.
Bolton dismissed a question about whether Trump has been more willing to criticize U.S. allies than authoritarian leaders of rival nations, including Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Trump feuded with Group of Seven leaders during a summit in Canada last month over trade, abruptly dropping support for a routine joint statement. The president also suggested Russia, which was kicked out of the group after it annexed Crimea in 2014, be invited back into the organization.
“I don't read the way he conducted these meetings the same way,” Bolton told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “I don't think anybody ought to have a case of the vapors over discussions we have in NATO or the G-7 versus discussions we have with Putin or Kim Jong Un. They're very, very different; the president treats them differently. He understands what the strategic interests are, and that's what he's trying to pursue.”
Although U.S. intelligence officials have stated unequivocally that Russian agents sought to influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump has continued to cast doubt on those conclusions. Last summer, during his first one-on-one meeting with Putin, in Hamburg, Trump said that he questioned him about the interference accusations and that the Russian leader denied it.
Last week, Trump suggested in a tweet that he believed Putin's denials.
Bolton, who before joining the White House said on television that Putin lied to Trump, said he hasn't changed his mind about Russia's involvement. In a meeting last week to plan the summit, Bolton said, Putin told him that “there was no meddling in the 2016 election by the Russian state. So I think it still raises the question. I think the president will have a conversation about this and say, 'We don't want to see meddling in the 2018 election.'”
Bolton added: “It's something we're concerned about. That's why the president is going to talk to him about it again.”
But in an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News, Trump did not answer a question from Maria Bartiromo, host of “Sunday Morning Futures,” about whether he would confront Putin over the interference allegations. Instead, Trump reiterated his attacks on Hillary Clinton for using a private email server when she was secretary of state.
Of the ongoing investigation from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump said: “If Russia was looking to sow discord or chaos, they’ve got to be saying, 'This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done.' There was no collusion with me. Honestly, it’s a disgrace.”
In a separate interview on CBS's “Face the Nation,” Bolton also attempted to add new context to Trump's remarks to reporters on Air Force One last week that appeared to raise the possibility that his administration would formally recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea. “We're going to have to see,” Trump said.
Bolton ruled out such a possibility. “That's not the position of the United States,” he said. “I think the president often says we'll see to show that he's willing to talk to foreign leaders about a range of issues and hear their perspective. President Putin was pretty clear with me about it and my response was we're going to have to agree to disagree on Ukraine.”
On reports that U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has sought to conceal its nuclear program just weeks after Trump and Kim met in Singapore to talk about disarmament, Bolton insisted that “there's nobody involved in this discussion with North Korea in the administration who is overburdened by naivete. We've seen how the North Koreans have behaved before. … We're going to pursue this, and we'll see what happens.”
Bolton, who previously served in the George W. Bush administration, has long been skeptical that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear program, prompting North Korea's state media to denounce him as “human scum.”
During the Singapore summit, however, “Kim Jong Un said to me: The two of us have to get a picture together. I want to take it home to show my hard-liners that you're not such a bad guy,” Bolton said.
Wallace asked Bolton how he felt about that?
“Wonderful,” Bolton replied.