President Trump and Russian President Vladimir held face-to-face talks in Helsinki on Monday, with Trump declaring U.S.-Russian relations have "never been worse."
"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. "Nothing would be easier than to refuse to meet, to refuse to engage. But that would not accomplish anything."
Trump and Putin met privately — with just interpreters, no aides from either side — for more than two hours before their joint appearance. The White House had scheduled 90 minutes for the meeting in the Gothic Hall at the Finnish Presidential Palace.
The two were seated together in a room set up with American and Russian flags. The meeting was delayed about 45 minutes following Putin's late arrival to Finland.
Trump said in the meeting the two discussed their disagreements "at length," noting the dangerous lessons from the past "when diplomacy is left on the table."
In the press conference, Trump said he raised the issue of election meddling during his meeting with Putin, a topic, he said, on which Putin "has an interesting idea." Trump did not elaborate on what the idea is.
"I felt this was a message best delivered in person," Trump said. "President Putin may very well want to address it and very strongly 'cause he feels very strongly about it and he has an interesting idea."
Putin said that Russia "never interfered" in the 2016 presidential election. "Once again, President Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia with the American elections," Putin said. "I had to reiterate things, I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs, including the election process."
On interference, Putin said, "We should be guided by facts. ... There is no evidence guided by actual facts. ... Can you name a single fact?"
Putin also said he didn't know the "full extent" regarding the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers last week for allegedly hacking emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party during the election.
Trump said there are groups asking why the FBI never took control of Clinton's secret email server and why they were asked to leave the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
"30,000 emails gone, just gone," Trump said. ""Where is the server and what is the server saying?"
In addition, Putin said it is "utter nonsense" to think that Russia would have compiled compromising information on anyone. "Just disregard this issue," Putin said.
On the sour relations, Trump said, "I feel we both have made some mistakes" and the Russia probe into supposed collusion has "kept us apart." He noted, too, that he "easily" beat Clinton. "There was no collusion, there was nobody to collude with."
Putin said the discussions were "frank," "fruitful" and "productive."
"Negotiations with President Trump took place in a frank and businesslike atmosphere. I think we can call it a success and a very fruitful round of negotiations," Putin said.
"It's clear to everyone that the bilateral relationships are going through a complicated stage," Putin said. "Yet those impediments, the current tension, the tense atmosphere essentially has no solid reason behind it."
"The Cold War is a thing of the past," declared Putin, but he added, "Clearly there are some challenges left, we were not able to clear all of the backlog."
For his part, Trump said they had a "direct, open and deeply productive" dialogue. "A productive dialogue is not only good for the United States and good for Russia, but it is good for the world," he said.
The press conference was delayed briefly when a man credentialed as "press" created a disturbance. Finnish officials and Secret Service agents escorted the man from the room.
Even before Trump and Putin met privately, Russia’s government signaled the two were already in agreement. After Trump wrote on Twitter, "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!" Russia’s Foreign Ministry tweeted, "we agree."
Before the private meeting, Trump said he thinks "the world wants to see us get along." He added that the two countries have "great opportunities" and share an "extraordinary relationship." Said Putin: "The time has come to talk in a substantive way."
"I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that frankly we have not been getting along very well for the last number of years," Trump said. "I've been here not too long but it is getting close to two years, but I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship. I've been saying, and I'm sure you've heard, over the years ... that getting along with Russia is a good thing not a bad thing.
"I really think the world wants to see us get along," he continued. "We are the two great nuclear powers. We have 90% of the nuclear — and that's not a good thing, it's a bad thing. I think we can hopefully do something about that because it is not a positive force, it is a negative force so we'll be talking about that among other things."
Trump also said their discussions would include trade, the military, missiles, nuclear weapons and China.
Before the pair held a joint press conference, Trump said he and Putin have had "a good start, a very good start for everybody."
During a luncheon with Putin, Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.