President Trump on Saturday repeatedly defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against charges that the Russian government meddled in last year's U.S. elections, apparently vouching for Putin's assurances that there was no interference despite the U.S. intelligence community's reports to the contrary.
"Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,' " Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One, while traveling in Vietnam during his 12-day Asian trip. "I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it."
In contrast, Trump lashed out at former U.S. national security officials who sounded the alarm about Russian interference, including former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and former FBI Director James B. Comey, whom Trump fired earlier this year.
"They're political hacks," the president said. "And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that."
Trump's comments drew strong condemnation from lawmakers and national security officials back in the U.S.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to Twitter to criticize Trump. "There's nothing 'America First' about taking the word of KGB colonel over US intelligence community," McCain said, referring to Putin's past as a Soviet intelligence officer.
Later during Trump's Vietnam visit, Trump appeared to try to qualify his Putin remarks, saying that he supports the U.S. intelligence community but thinks Putin sincerely believes Russia didn't meddle in the 2016 elections.
"I believe very much in our intelligence agencies," the president said at a brief news conference in Hanoi with Vietnam's leader. "Now, at the same time ... I think it is very important to get along with Russia."
Trump's appointees to lead the intelligence agencies, including current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have testified before Congress that they stand by the assessment that Russia meddled.
Trump's attempts to explain his conversations with the Russian leader overshadowed the president's efforts to focus on other issues during his Asia trip, including trade and security, though the president did reignite his Twitter battle with North Korean President Kim Jong Un, calling Kim "short and fat."
The seemingly contorted explanations also followed days of equivocation from the White House over whether Trump would even meet with Putin. Both men were in this seaside Vietnamese resort city to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Trump said he had "two or three very short conversations" with Putin over the last two days to discuss Syria. They issued a joint statement Saturday promising further cooperation in seeking a political solution to the country's civil war.
U.S. intelligence agencies already have concluded that Russia engaged in a campaign to influence the election, hacking into Democratic emails that later were leaked and using a variety of online tools to spread fake news and other propaganda.
Now, the investigation into potential collusion between the Russian government and Trump's campaign is reaching a new stage.
Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was charged last month with money laundering and conspiracy, and a second former aide, Richard W. Gates III, also was charged in the indictment, though none of those charges were related to allegations of Russian election meddling.
The same day, it was announced that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor for the campaign who worked to set up contacts with Russian officials, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and has been cooperating with investigators.
During the Asia trip, White House staff members have seemed intent on downplaying Trump's interactions with Putin. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Friday that the two would not have a formal meeting, despite reports in Russia that they would, because there was not time in the schedule. She allowed, however, that they were bound to run into each other and probably would chat.
In Vietnam, Trump said Putin told him he "absolutely did not meddle in our election."
"Look, I can't stand there and argue with him. I'd rather have him get out of Syria" and "work with him on the Ukraine," Trump said.
"That whole thing was set up by the Democrats," Trump continued, though it was unclear whether he was blaming Democrats for Russia's election interference or for the investigation into his campaign's potential collusion with the Russians.
Trump also raised the meddling issue with Putin in July, during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, yielding similar results. Putin came away from the meeting telling reporters that Trump was "satisfied" with his denials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a different version, saying the two countries may have "an intractable disagreement" over the issue.
Trump said Saturday that he and Putin "have a good feeling toward getting things done" and that a stronger relationship with Russia "would be a great thing, not a bad thing."
He said China has been more helpful than Russia in efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear program. He said Putin is insulted by accusations of meddling and blamed "the lack of a relationship that we have with Russia because of this artificial thing that's happening with this Democratic-inspired thing." At another point, he called the Russian collusion investigation an "artificial Democratic hit job."
Responding to criticism that he had not raised human rights issues on his trip through Asia as strongly as his predecessors, Trump also asserted that he had, "but I also raise issues on many other things."
And he said that while meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, he "very briefly" raised the issue of opening China to Twitter and other social media platforms now censored in the country. But the president added that he was more focused on trade and North Korea.
In the same interview, Trump declined to say whether Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore should drop out of the race following reports that he molested a 14-year-old girl nearly four decades ago. Sanders issued a statement Friday on Trump's behalf calling it a "mere allegation" while adding that "if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside."
Trump told reporters he was too busy on his Asia trip to devote much time to the issue.
"I'm dealing with the president of China, the president of Russia," he said. "I'm dealing with the folks over here."