Trump refuses to denounce Russian involvement in election at joint presser with Putin

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE on Monday refused to denounce Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and criticized the special counsel investigation — all while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference following their meeting in Helsinki, Finland.

In an extraordinary scene broadcast live to a worldwide audience, Trump sided with Russia over his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion about Russia’s meddling in the election.

“They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said.

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“I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be,” Trump added. “So, I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Trump offered the remarks after Putin again publicly denied involvement in the U.S. election.

During his opening remarks, Putin insisted Russia “has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs,” even as he later admitted that he wanted Trump to beat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe two infectious diseases spreading across America Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left MORE in 2016.

“Yes, I did, because he was the one who wanted to normalize relations with Russia,” the Russian leader said.

The president showed little interest in publicly challenging Putin over the issue, a stance that drew accusations of weakness from Democrats and condemnations from GOP critics and even some media outlets typically friendly to Trump.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEsper faces tough questions on dismissal of aircraft carrier's commander Democratic super PAC targets McSally over coronavirus response GOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Ariz.) labeled Trump’s press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.), who has been reluctant to sharply criticize Trump, said the president “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally” and stated “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election.”

The Drudge Report’s banner headline Monday afternoon was “Putin Dominates in Hel,” complete with an unflattering photo of the president looking off-balance.

Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto pronounced the press conference “disgusting,” while Fox analyst and former anchor Brit Hume criticized the president’s “lame” response.

The reaction on networks more critical of Trump was even more severe, with CNN’s Anderson Cooper declaring it “perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader that I have ever seen” immediately at the press conference’s conclusion.

Democrats, put on defense just last week with Trump’s Supreme Court nomination, pounced on what amounted to a political gift. Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHouse Republicans, key administration officials push for additional funding for coronavirus small business loans Rep. Massie threatens to block next relief bill, calls for remote voting Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus MORE (N.Y.) lambasted Trump for taking the word of Putin, a former KGB officer, and sought to put the GOP on the back foot, calling on Republican lawmakers to push back against the president.

Trump sought to respond to that criticism in a tweet sent aboard Air Force One while en route back to the U.S.

“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past — as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!” the president wrote.

The press conference concluded a summit that featured a two-hour discussion between just Putin, Trump and their interpreters. Aides were later added to the meetings as the leaders continued to talk.

The president decided to go ahead with the meeting despite the Justice Department’s indictment on Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officers who are accused of hacking Democratic officials and entities as part of a broad effort to tip the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

The charges undercut Putin’s repeated denials of Moscow’s involvement and raised pressure on Trump to confront the Russian leader.

Instead, Trump complained, with Putin at his side, that the allegations had created doubts about the legitimacy of his win over Clinton.

“I won that race, and it’s a shame there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it,” he said. “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president.”

Trump said he holds “both countries” responsible for the tense relationship, an assessment at odds with members of both parties and many administration officials, who blame Russia’s election interference and military interventions in Syria and Ukraine.

Critics expressed fear that Trump’s handling of the meeting could undercut his administration’s efforts to deter Russia’s apparent plans to meddle in November's midterm elections, as well as contests overseas. They also raised speculation about future resignations from the administration.

Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsWe weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Experts report recent increase in Chinese group's cyberattacks MORE highlighted the divide between the president and his administration on Russia.

“The role of the intelligence community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers,” Coats said. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

Trump’s overtures to Putin have worried many in the national security establishment, who believe it furthers the Russian leader’s goal of weakening the U.S. and its Western allies in order to boost Russia’s influence on the world stage.

The president’s performance on Monday made it clear, however, that little can be done to convince him of that view.

“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Trump declared in his opening remarks.

Putin also claimed the talks were a “success” and said the two sides made progress on problem areas like the Syrian civil war and cybersecurity.

The Russian leader even gifted Trump a soccer ball on live television during the end of the news conference, a souvenir Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump attacks WHO amid criticism of his coronavirus response Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill UN biodiversity chief calls for international ban of 'wet markets' MORE (R-S.C.) said the White House should check for listening devices.

The president reportedly gave Putin the jersey of Alexander Ovechkin, the Russian captain of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, and a hockey puck.

The warm atmosphere of Monday’s meeting stood in sharp contrast to Trump’s previous stops in Belgium and the United Kingdom, where he vocally criticized NATO allies over defense spending and caused a stir with negative comments about British Prime Minister Theresa May that were published in a U.K. tabloid.

Back in Washington, federal law enforcement announced they arrested and charged a Russian woman with conspiring to infiltrate U.S. political organizations at the direction of a top Kremlin official — yet another example of Moscow’s alleged efforts to meddle in other nations' affairs.

Updated at 4:59 p.m.