During his flight from Danang to Hanoi on Saturday, President Trump seemed to suggest that he believes Vladimir Putin when he says Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 election.
Here’s Trump’s exchange with a reporter via The New York Times:
REPORTER: Did Russia’s attempts to meddle in U.S. elections come up in the conversation?
TRUMP: He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. But I just asked him again, and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they’re saying he did. And he said —
REPORTER: Do you believe him?
TRUMP: Well, look, I can’t stand there and argue with him. I’d rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I’d rather have him — you know, work with him on the Ukraine than standing and arguing about whether or not — because that whole thing was set up by the Democrats.
I mean, they ought to look at Podesta. They ought to look at all of the things that they’ve done with the phony dossier. Those are the big events. Those are the big events.
But Putin said he did not do what they said he did. And, you know, there are those that say, if he did do it, he wouldn’t have gotten caught, all right? Which is a very interesting statement. But we have a — you know, we have a good feeling toward getting things done.
If we had a relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing. In fact, it would be a great thing, not a bad thing. Because he could really help us in North Korea. We have a big problem with North Korea. And China is helping us. And because of the lack of a relationship that we have with Russia because of this artificial thing that’s happening with this Democratic-inspired thing, we could really be helped a lot, tremendously, with Russia having to do with North Korea.
And, you know, you’re talking about millions and millions of lives. This isn’t baby stuff. This is the real deal. And if Russia helped us, in addition to China, that problem would go away a lot faster.
REPORTER: How did you bring up the issue of election meddling? Did you ask him a question?
TRUMP: He just — every time he sees me, he says, “I didn’t do that.” And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, “I didn’t do that.” I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.
Don’t forget, all he said is he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he’s very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country. Because again, if we had a relationship with Russia, North Korea — which is our single biggest problem right now — North Korea, it would be helped a lot. I think I’m doing very well with respect to China. They’ve cut off financing; they’ve cut off bank lines; they’ve cut off lots of oil and lots of other things, lots of trade. And it’s having a big impact. But Russia, on the other hand, may be making up the difference. And if they are, that’s not a good thing.
So having a relationship with Russia would be a great thing — not a good thing — it would be a great thing, especially as it relates to North Korea.
And I’ll say this, Hillary had her stupid reset button that she spelled the word wrong, but she doesn’t have what it takes to have that kind of a relationship where you could call or you could do something and they would pull back from North Korea, or they’d pull back from Syria, or maybe pull back from Ukraine. I mean, if we could solve the Ukraine problem —
But this is really an artificial barrier that’s put in front of us for solving problems with Russia, and he says that very strongly. He really seems to be insulted by it, and he says he didn’t do it. So —
REPORTER: (Inaudible) do you believe him —
TRUMP: Excuse me?
REPORTER: Even if he (inaudible) one-on-one, do you believe him?
TRUMP: I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. And then you look, and you look at what’s going on with Podesta, and you look at what’s going on with the server from the D.N.C. and why didn’t the F.B.I. take it, why did they leave it, why did a third party look at the server and not the FBI — if you look at all of this stuff, and you say, what’s going on here?
And then you hear it’s 17 agencies. Well, it’s three. And one is Brennan and one is whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks.
So you look at it — I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.
So you look at that, and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that. Now, you’re not going to get into an argument. You’re going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.
Four things should be noted:
1. Trump calls out former United States intelligence agency heads in what appears to be an attempt to discredit the things they’ve said, and possibly any findings that were made while they were leading their respective agencies.
2. While Trump never directly states that he believes Putin’s claims, his insistence that he believes Putin’s sincerity when the Russian president says he didn’t try to interfere in the 2016 election is essentially the same thing.
3. Trump frequently pivots to other topics, like North Korea and Syria, noting that in order to influence those situations, the United States may need Russia’s cooperation.
4. It’s unclear exactly what Trump is referring to when he talks about the "artificial thing that’s happening with this Democratic-inspired thing." If he’s referring to alleged collusion, he’s on solid ground as of now. However, if he’s referring to Russian officials attempting to influence the election, he’s standing on sand.
There are many reasons why Trump would say these things, and none of them are mutually exclusive. He likely wants to build a better relationship with Russia in order to help stabilize ongoing geopolitical conflicts. It’s also likely, however, that he’s simply trying to deflect bad press, including the collusion narrative that has yet to find a solid foundation.