BRUSSELS — President Trump pledged Thursday that he will “of course” raise the issue of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election at his Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he said he has little recourse if — as expected — Putin denies that Russia interfered.
“Look, he may. What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said at a news conference on the second day of a NATO summit. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”
Trump continued to strike a friendly tone toward the Russian leader, calling him a “competitor” rather than a U.S. enemy — while declining to label him as a security threat to the United States or European nations.
“Somebody was saying, is he an enemy? He’s not my enemy. Is he your friend? No, I don’t know him very much,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “Hopefully, someday, he’ll be a friend. It could happen.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump has avoided admonishing Putin, even though U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to sow discord and help Trump win in 2016.
Trump resents that many of his advisers have told him not to meet with Putin, two White House officials said. He continues to tell senior aides that he can have a good relationship with Putin and that Russia’s involvement is needed to address Syria, China and other world problems. National security adviser John Bolton, who has taken a leading role on Russia policy, has a more jaundiced view of Putin, according to these officials.
“I don’t mind him having a friendly personal relationship with Putin as long as it’s understood that Russia will pay a price,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “Without any hesitation, we have to reject Putin’s denial.”
During his 35-minute news conference shortly before he left for London, Trump also insisted that other world leaders gathered here expressed “just the opposite of concern” about his pending meeting with Putin.
“They actually thanked me for meeting with President Putin,” Trump said. “They thought it was a great thing that I was doing it, and they gave us . . . their best wishes.”
The specter of Russia loomed large in Trump’s dealings during the combative two-day summit here.
In his first NATO session — a breakfast with the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg — Trump went on the attack against Germany, asserting that it is “totally controlled by Russia” because it imports Russian natural gas.
In Moscow, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov dismissed Trump’s criticism of a new Russian gas pipeline to Germany as an effort to get Europeans to buy American liquefied natural gas instead.
But he added that Trump’s tough talk was unlikely to make Monday’s discussion with Putin any more complicated.
“They’ll be difficult anyway,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “You already know the volume of disagreements that are on the agenda, so it’s unlikely that anything will make this even more difficult.”
Trump said he will raise several other issues, including the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Also on the agenda, he said, will be a Reagan-era arms control agreement and the prospect of extending a 2011 nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
When asked whether he would recognize Crimea as part of Russia, Trump did not respond directly. Instead, he blamed Barack Obama, who was president in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine.
“That was on Barack Obama’s watch. That was not on Trump’s watch,” he said. “Would I have allowed it to happen? No.”
Dawsey reported from London. Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.