U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hand with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of the press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP

HELSINKI — President Donald Trump refused to support the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying at the end of his summit here Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the autocrat privately gave him an “extremely strong and powerful” denial.

After Putin claimed his government played no role in trying to sabotage the U.S. election, as the Justice Department charged last Friday in indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic emails as part of a broad subterfuge operation, Trump offered no pushback. He went on to condemn the expansive federal investigation of Russian interference as “a disaster for our country.”

Trump’s warm embrace of Putin throughout a lengthy news conference was an extraordinary capstone to their first formal summit, where the two presidents spent two hours speaking alone, joined only by their interpreters.

The U.S. president’s failure to directly confront his Russian counterpart stunned Washington’s national security establishment and drew rebukes from members of Maine’s congressional delegation of both political parties in written statements.

The sternest one came from Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District who said the president “shamefully stood on the world stage,” and “undermined” U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Trump must treat Russian aggression as a “serious threat.”

The delegation’s Republicans also chimed in, with Sen. Susan Collins saying that Trump is demonstrating a “continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions” of the intelligence community. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District said Americans must “recognize the consensus that Russia did try to interfere in our election.”

In their tête-à-tête, Putin — a former KGB agent trained in psychological ma­nipu­la­tion who has two decades of experience negotiating with American presidents — apparently persuaded Trump to discount the findings of his own intelligence agencies. When an American journalist asked Trump whether he believes U.S. intelligence or Putin, Trump replied, “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.”

With Trump looking on, Putin insisted to reporters that “the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election process.”

Trump also insisted that there was no coordination between his campaign and Moscow. “I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign.”

Trump said that he holds “both countries responsible” for the frayed relations between the two nations and attacked special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation.

Putin later confirmed that he did want Trump to win in 2016, “because he talked about normalizing relations” between Russia and the United States. Yet Putin did not answer directly when pressed on whether the Russian government had compromising information on Trump or his family members, dismissing it by saying that “it’s hard to imagine greater nonsense.” He told reporters, “Please throw this junk out of your head.”

The summit began hours after Trump on Twitter blamed his own country, rather than Russia, for the hostilities between their two nations.

Speaking first at the news conference, Putin said the talks took place “in a frank and businesslike atmosphere,” adding, “I think we can call it a success.” He said that although bilateral relations have been “going through a complicated stage,” there was “no solid reason” for that.

“The Cold War is a thing of the past,” he said.

Putin added that Trump “mentioned the so-called interference of Russia in the American election” in 2016. Putin again denied any involvement by the Russian state and said any evidence of interference can be analyzed through a joint working group on cybersecurity.

Putin said later in response to a question that U.S. investigators possibly could come to Russia to participate in the questioning of suspects after a dozen Russian intelligence officers were indicted in the United States on charges of election interference.

Elaborating, Putin said representatives of the Mueller probe could be present at interrogations of suspects in Russia — as long as Russians would be able to do the same at the questioning of U.S. intelligence agents that Moscow suspects of carrying out crimes on Russian soil. Any questions about Russian interference in the U.S. elections, he said, should be resolved by the courts and according to existing intergovernmental agreements.

In response to questions, Trump said that both countries were to blame for the deterioration of relations. “I do feel that we have both made some mistakes,” he said. “I think the probe has been a disaster for our country,” he said. “It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”

Soon after the news conference ended, Trump boarded Air Force One with first lady Melania Trump en route back to Washington.

Trump critics reacted harshly to Trump’s statements, with former CIA director John Brennan calling them “nothing short of treasonous.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, an ally of the president who has been critical of him at times, said it “will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”

The private meeting began later than originally planned, after the perennially tardy Putin arrived in Helsinki well behind schedule, keeping Trump waiting. The two leaders then went into an expanded meeting that included top aides. At the start of it, Trump, responding to a shouted question from a reporter, said: “I think it’s a good start. Very, very good start for everybody.”

Trump was facing immense pressure to aggressively confront Putin over Russia’s election interference, especially after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials Friday and charged them with hacking and stealing Democratic emails as part of a broad subterfuge operation that U.S. intelligence agencies believe was ordered by Putin to help elect Trump.

But Trump’s comments Monday were in sync with the argument Putin and his government have long made, which is that the policies of former President Barack Obama administration — as well as the investigation into election interference, which Putin repeatedly has denied — inflamed tensions between the two nuclear superpowers.

Washington Post writers William Branigin and John Wagner, and BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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