President Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has “probably” been involved in assassinations and poisonings.
The remark came as Moscow deals with the diplomatic fallout surrounding a nerve agent attack in March on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain.
However, speaking to reporters on Monday, a spokesman for Putin played down Trump’s comments and suggested that the U.S. leader may have misspoken.
“I wouldn’t make the assessment that Trump allowed that possibility and so on, as we’re reading in many media reports,” Dmitry Peskov said, according to Latvian-based news outlet Meduza.
“Here you’ve got to be very flexible with how you read the linguistic properties. It’s clear that there couldn’t have been a different answer,” the Kremlin spokesman said, adding that there was no credible proof implicating Putin in the Skripal case.
Trump made his remarks in a wide-ranging interview on CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” Interviewer Lesley Stahl told Trump that he never criticized Putin publicly.
“Do you agree that Vladimir Putin is involved in assassinations? In poisonings?” Stahl asked.
“Probably he is, yeah. Probably. I mean, I don’t ...” Trump responded.
“Probably?” Stahl said.
“But I rely on them, it’s not in our country,” the president said, later adding that “of course they shouldn’t do it.”
The poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the British town of Salisbury has intensified scrutiny of Russian foreign policy. Sergei Skripal was a Russian military intelligence officer who was arrested in 2004 and convicted of high treason; he settled in Britain after a spy swap.
Both father and daughter have been discharged from the hospital.
British investigators say the Skripal attack involved the use of Novichok, a powerful nerve agent developed under the Soviet Union. After police released details of two men suspected in the poisoning, the men appeared on Russian state television and said they had simply been visiting Britain about the same time as the attack and had nothing to do with it.
The United States expelled 60 Russian officials and closed a consulate in Seattle in response to the attack, part of a wave of coordinated expulsions by Western allies. Moscow has repeatedly denied any role in the poisoning.
A number of Russian dissidents and Putin critics have died in mysterious circumstances in recent years. At least one of these deaths has occurred in the United States: Mikhail Lesin, a former ally of Putin, was found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel room in 2015.
Trump has previously deflected questions about Putin’s involvement in the death of his critics. In an interview with Fox News in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly told Trump that “Putin is a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump responded. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
In his interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, Trump said he had been “very tough” with Putin when the two met in Helsinki in July.
However, Peskov told journalists on Monday that the meeting had not ventured outside the realm of “diplomatic politeness.”
“All questions were put in a very straightforward manner. In this respect the meeting was really tough, because both presidents openly mentioned the irritants that exist in bilateral relations,” Peskov said.
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