President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held one barn burner of a joint press conference Monday at their first-ever bilateral summit, in Helsinki, during which Putin invited U.S. investigators to visit Russia and cast doubt on the existence of the infamous “pee tape” — the most scandalous assertion in the Steele dossier — while stopping just short of flatly denying that it might exist.
The tone between the two leaders appeared friendly and jocular, as Trump took the opportunity, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Russian president, to throw jabs at both Democrats and the investigation into Russian election meddling now being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
While Trump called the Mueller probe a “disaster for our country,” Putin offered Mueller an olive branch, inviting him and his team to be present for interviews of Russian intelligence officers in Moscow — so long as Russian investigators get to interview Americans about their actions in Russia, too.
“We can let them into the country and they’ll be present for this questioning,” Putin said at a joint press conference with Trump in the Finnish capital of Helsinki on Monday. “But this should be mutual, and we should be able to question law enforcement officers and intelligence officials who we believe have been involved in illegal actions on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Putin went on to reaffirm his previous denials that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump was asked pointedly whether he thinks Russia hacked the U.S. election, and he replied that he found Putin’s denial pretty convincing, despite the consensus by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia did it.
But Putin demurred, somewhat, when asked specifically about the exact activities of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted Friday in a surprise move by Mueller’s team, at a moment when Trump was already in Europe en route to Monday’s big summit with Putin.
“President Trump mentioned this issue, and I will look into it,” Putin said about the 12 alleged cyber-spies.
Mueller’s indictment accused a dozen Russian military intelligence officers of being involved in a plot to hack Democratic email accounts and distribute the contents online in an attempt to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Political commentators have said they didn’t expect Russia to extradite the officers, or for the indictment to result in a real trial.
Trump praised Putin’s proposal as an “interesting idea.”
“He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with regard to the 12 people,” Trump said. “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
This press conference turned out to be the one where someone finally directly asked Putin whether he’s got any secret dirt on Trump or his family.
“I have heard these rumors,” Putin said. But he insisted that he wasn’t even aware that Trump was visiting Moscow during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant at the time of the event, a visit that has been closely scrutinized due to the claims, in the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, that Trump was secretly filmed cavorting with prostitutes in his hotel room.
By way of proving his point, Putin pointed to the recent economic conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, attended by many Americans, and said Russian intelligence couldn’t possibly spy on all of them at once.
“Please disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again,” Putin said.
Trump then chimed in: “If they had it, it would have been out long ago.”
Trump, who has previously said in years past that he had some kind of a relationship with Putin, said on Monday that his campaign couldn’t have cooperated with Moscow to undermine the 2016 election because he didn’t know Putin at that time.
“I didn’t know the president,” Trump said. “There was nobody collude with.”
“IT WENT VERY WELL”
Both men declared the summit a smash success, and described it as the start of a longer process toward warming up frosty U.S.-Russian relations.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed, as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Trump said. “We had direct, open, deeply-productive dialogue. It went very well.”
“We have taken the first steps toward a brighter future,” Trump said, describing the meeting with Putin as the opening of a new, improved stage of U.S-Russian relations.
Before the summit kicked off Monday, Trump blamed the downturn on U.S.-Russian relations on the “foolishness” and “stupidity” of American foreign policy — and took direct aim at the Mueller investigation on Twitter.
At the summit itself, Trump again said both sides were at fault for the two countries’ troubled relationship.
“I think we’re all to blame,” Trump said.
Trump, who was briefed on Friday’s indictment days before it dropped, met with Putin privately for a little over two hours on Monday morning before the two leaders sat down for a working lunch with their top advisors, then hit the stage for their joint press conference.
Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin sparked criticism from Democrats and concern from political analysts — including from those who argued that the wily Russian president, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, would likely come well-prepared to get the most out of his encounter with Trump.
The meeting lasted longer than initially planned, having initially been scheduled to last 90 minutes.
“I’m worried that Trump met with Putin alone without his aides,” Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst who tracks Russian foreign policy closely at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VICE News. “Putin is a far more skilled interlocutor than Trump. There’s no telling what happened in that meeting.”
At their press conference, Trump congratulated Putin on hosting the World Cup, which wrapped up Sunday.
Putin responded by handing Trump a soccer ball, which Trump passed to his wife, Melania.
Cover image: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images