DA NẴNG, VIETNAM - After spending a week sticking to the script — trade and North Korea — President Trump's Asia trip veered off course this weekend into another kerfuffle over Vladimir Putin and Russian election meddling.
Seeking to clarify comments he had made hours before, Trump said Sunday he believes that Putin believes the Russians did not interfere in last year's U.S. presidential race — but Trump himself said he sides with the intelligence community's conclusions to the contrary.
"I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership," Trump said at a joint news conference with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, giving a rare (and grudging) endorsement to the idea that the Russians sought to interfere with last year's presidential vote.
His revised comments came the morning after he caused a a stir by suggesting to reporters that he believed Putin's denials more than the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials that Russia did in fact intervene in the election via hacked emails and fake news postings on social media.
Members of the intelligence community, some of whom Trump described as "hacks," reacted angrily, as did lawmakers in both parties.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, speaking on CNN's State of the Union, said the president is impugning U.S. intelligence officers, and "I think it's something Mr. Trump should be ashamed of."
Russian interference in the election is the subject of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and various congressional committees. They are also looking at possible links between Russians and Trump campaign associates, claims the president vehemently denies.
"I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn't do it," Trump said hours before his news conference, going on to trash Brennan, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and ex-FBI Director James Comey, all of whom served during the Barack Obama administration.
"They're political hacks," Trump said. "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."
Trump's dismissal of Comey back in May is the subject of an obstruction of justice investigation by Mueller's office; Comey has said he believes he was fired over his role supervising the Russia investigation.
Clapper, also appearing on CNN, said Trump should act against Russian election interference, and said "Putin is committed to undermining our system."
Trump defends Putin
In defending Putin, Trump said on Air Force One: "Every time he sees me he says 'I didn’t do that' and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says 'I didn’t do that.' I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country."
Asked to clarify at the Hanoi news conference, Trump said of Putin: "I believe he believes that, and that's very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election."
The incident is yet another example of how the Russia investigation weighs heavily on the Trump administration, even on a foreign trip like the current one through Asia.
It arose after Trump spoke with Putin Saturday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. Later, aboard Air Force One, reporters later asked Trump if Russian election meddling surfaced during their conversations, prompting Trump to go on at length about Putin's denials.
Trump defended his comments during a Sunday morning tweet storm that also deviated from his disciplined approach of his Asia trip.
In addition to calling his critics "haters and fools," Trump mocked the leader of North Korea: "Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?' Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!"
In his travels through Asia, Trump has asked China and other countries to put economic pressure on North Korea, seeking to get Kim to end his nuclear weapons program.
Sunday's news conference followed Trump's meetings with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam.
Trump also met with other Vietnamese leaders, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.
Later in the day, Trump headed to the Philippines for another Asia economic summit. Dressed in a white long-sleeved tropical shirt, Trump and other leaders attended a dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Trump posed for pictures with the summit host, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a hardliner whose domestic war on drugs has included extrajudicial killings. Trump and Duterte are scheduled to meet Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit.
The Hanoi stop followed Trump's attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, part of an Asia trip that has also included visits to Japan, South Korea, and China.
Complaints about trade
As he did at other stops, Trump protested that too many countries — presumably including Vietnam — take advantage of the United States on trade rules. Vietnam was to have been part of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Trump withdrew the United States from the dozen-nation Pacific Rim trade deal.
Also as in other countries, Trump asked Vietnam to buy more American goods.
In his meetings with Vietnamese leaders, Trump also said he would work to help resolve disputes over China's military expansion into the South China Sea.
"I am a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator," he told his Vietnamese counterpart.
But Trump's comments about Putin — whom he met on the sidelines of the APEC summit — overshadowed Asia news and drew criticism across the political spectrum.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent antagonist of Trump, invoked the president's campaign slogan in criticizing the comments on Putin: “There's nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump "fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail."
Defending his views at the Hanoi news conference, Trump said he wants to get along with Russia so that it can help with challenges like the Middle East and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "Getting along with other nations is a good thing, not a bad thing," Trump said.
Some U.S. lawmakers said Putin doesn't want to help the U.S. McCain, for example, protested the Syria statement that Putin and Trump put together over the weekend.
Saying Russia only wants to prop up the "murderous" Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, McCain said: "Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”
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