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Trump says he talked to Putin about ‘Russian Hoax’ but not about ongoing election interference

President Trump spoke to reporters May 3 in the Oval Office about speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Venezuela during a phone call earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump said he and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin discussed the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election during a lengthy phone call Friday but said he did not raise concerns about the possibility of Russian interference to come in the 2020 contest.

Trump also contradicted his top national security aides on Russian motives in Venezuela, where the United States and Russia are on opposite sides of a deadly political schism.

The two leaders, during their first known conversation in months, also discussed North Korea, whose leader met with Putin last month, and a potential nuclear arms control deal.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office hours after the call with Putin, Trump described a brief exchange about the conclusion of the two-year investigation. Mueller found that while Russia interfered “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” there was not a criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump’s campaign.

“We discussed it. He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse,” Trump said. “But he knew that, because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”

The two leaders could not see each other during the call. Trump’s description was meant to convey that it was a light moment, a spokesman said.

Trump was asked repeatedly whether he raised the issue of election interference or warned Putin not to do it again.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters May 3 that Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump had an hour-long phone conversation. (Video: Reuters)

“We didn’t discuss that,” Trump said eventually. “Really, we didn’t discuss it.”

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In the past, Trump has bristled at criticism that he has not forcefully confronted Putin over Russian actions aimed at influencing the election and undermining Americans’ faith in their democracy.

After the two leaders met in Helsinki last July, Trump accepted what he called Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of election interference, despite the opposite conclusion by American intelligence agencies.

Trump’s comments Friday came shortly after White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that the Mueller report was discussed “very, very briefly” during the morning phone call, which lasted slightly more than an hour.

“It was discussed, essentially in the context that it’s over and there was no collusion, which I’m pretty sure both leaders were very well aware of long before this call took place,” Sanders said.

Sanders said most of the conversation was devoted to other topics, including nuclear agreements, North Korea, Venezuela and trade.

Trump later tweeted about the call, referring to the Mueller investigation as the “Russian Hoax.”

Russian election interference in 2016 included a social media campaign that favored Trump and disparaged Democrat Hillary Clinton, as well as the hacking of computers maintained by allies of Clinton and the subsequent release of stolen documents.

The special counsel did not find sufficient evidence to bring charges of criminal conspiracy with Russia against Trump or anyone associated with his campaign. The report did not offer a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. Attorney General William P. Barr later concluded that there was not sufficient evidence for obstruction of justice, but House Democrats are continuing to pursue that issue.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray warned last month that Russia is continuing to attempt to undermine U.S. elections, including the presidential election next year.

Putin has echoed some of Trump’s talking points in ridiculing the Mueller probe. Russian state television described it as a witch hunt orchestrated by the U.S. political establishment to punish Trump for seeking to improve ties with Russia. Putin has also denied that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

“We knew a mountain was being made out of a molehill, so to speak, because we knew how it would end beforehand,” Putin said last month. “Now it has come to pass, but it did not make the domestic political situation in the U.S. any easier. Now new excuses are being sought to attack President Trump.”

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Trump also contradicted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other advisers who have said this week that Russia propped up embattled Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro and blocked what might have been a peaceful transfer of power to the U.S.-backed opposition.

“He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela,” Trump said after the conversation with Putin, which had been arranged in large part to air differences over Venezuela and de-escalate a brewing proxy fight.

Instead, Trump appeared to take Putin at his word that Russia wants to help ease a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

“And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Right now, people are starving. They have no water. They have no food.”

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the White House had said that Russia “must leave” Venezuela and “renounce their support of the Maduro regime.” Russia has significant investments in Venezuela and has been a strong backer of Maduro.

Pompeo delivered the same message in a Wednesday call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom Pompeo will see next week in Finland. Pompeo had said that Russia had told Maduro not to step down and accept an offer of passage to Venezuelan ally Cuba.

“It’s the case that Maduro may rule for a little while longer, but he’s not going to govern,” Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday. “Structurally, there’s no way he stays in power. It’s time for him to leave, and we need the Cubans and the Russians to follow him out the door.”

A day earlier, national security adviser John Bolton had said that if Russians continue to ignore U.S. warnings about malign influence in Venezuela, they “will do that at their own cost.”

The Kremlin said that Putin “underscored that only the Venezuelans themselves have the right to determine the future of their country, whereas outside interference in the country’s internal affairs and attempts to change the government in Caracas by force undermine prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”

Sanders said Trump reiterated “the need for a peaceful transition.”

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Trump said he and Putin also discussed the possibility of extending a current nuclear agreement or creating a new one that includes China. A trilateral agreement among the world’s major nuclear powers would be a significant advance in arms control.

“We’re talking about a nuclear agreement where we make less and they make less and maybe even where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now,” Trump told reporters.

It was not clear whether he was referring to an extension of the existing New START accord limiting deployed strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, or a separate compact. The 2011 New START accord expires in 2021 but can be extended for five years by mutual agreement.

Regarding North Korea, Trump’s focus was on “the importance of Russia stepping up and continuing to help and put pressure on North Korea to denuclearize,” Sanders said.

Troianovski reported from Moscow. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.