President Donald Trump said Russia's Vladimir Putin once again vehemently denied interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections during their discussions on the sidelines of an economic summit Saturday. Trump declined to say whether he believed Putin, but made clear he's not interested in dwelling on the issue.
"He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did," Trump said of Putin, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One as he traveled to Hanoi, the second-to-last stop of his Asia trip.
"Every time he sees me, he said: 'I didn’t do that.' And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump said, noting that Putin is "very insulted" by the accusation. Trump called the allegation an "artificial barrier" erected by Democrats—once again casting doubt on the US intelligence community's conclusion that Russia tried to interfere in the election to help Trump win.
Trump and Putin didn't have a formal meeting while they were in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, but the two spoke informally several times on the event's sidelines and reached an agreement on a number of principles for the future of war-torn Syria.
The two leaders even issued a joint message on the Syrian civil war, saying they both agreed the conflict had no military solution and reaffirming to continue joint efforts to defeat the Islamic State. Trump and Putin also emphasized their commitment to Syria's sovereignty, and called on all parties to participate in talks on the country's future to be held in Switzerland.
But Trump made clear that the issue of Russian meddling in the election hovers over the leaders' relationship and said it jeopardized their ability to work together on issues including North Korea’s escalating nuclear program and the deadly conflict in Syria.
"Having a good relationship with Russia's a great, great thing. And this artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way," Trump told reporters. "People will die because of it."
Trump danced around the question of whether he believed Putin's denials, telling reporters that pressing the issue would have accomplished little.
"Well, look, I can't stand there and argue with him," Trump said. "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—'cause that whole thing was set up by the Democrats."
Trump's visit to Hanoi began with a state diner during which he showered the country with praise, saying it has "truly become one of the great miracles of the world." On Sunday, he'll meet with the country's president and prime minister before heading to his last stop: the Philippines.