Trump, Putin Vow to Cooperate on Syria, Ensure Israel's Security

Trump says he saw no reason to believe Russia had hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help him win, and Putin 'was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today'

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, looks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened Tuesday's highly anticipated joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki by saying that the U.S. president paid particular attention to Israel during their summit. Trump echoed that Russia and the U.S. will work together to help ensure Israeli security.

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 "We both spoke with Bibi and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel," Trump told a joint news conference. "Russia and the United States will work jointly (in this regard)."

"Creating safety for Israel is something both Putin and I would like to see very much," Trump said.

Putin said Trump had spent a lot of time talking about Israel during their talks. The conditions were in place for effective co-operation on Syria, Putin added. Washington and Moscow back different sides in the eight-year-old civil war.

Trump said they also wanted to help the Syrian people on a humanitarian basis.

"Our militaries have gotten along better than our political leaders for a number of years. And we get along in Syria too," Trump said.

Trump also said he had stressed the importance of putting pressure on Iran, an ally of Russia, while Putin said he was aware of U.S. opposition to the international nuclear agreement on Iran, which Russian supports. 

Putin added that all conditions are in place for effective cooperation on Syria, calling for enforcement of the 1974 Israel-Syria Separation of Fores Agreement to bring peace to the Golan Heights. Trump said he emphasized the importance of pressuring Iran, while Putin said the U.S. is aware of Russia's stance on the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump said he saw no reason to believe Russia had hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help him win, and Vladimir Putin "was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today".

At a rambling news conference after a one-on-one meeting with the Russian president, Trump said not a single critical word about Russia on any of the issues that have brought relations between the Washington and Moscow to a post-Cold War low.

Asked if he trusted U.S. intelligence agencies which concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, he said he had been told by his CIA chief that it was Russia, but that he saw no reason to believe it.

"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said. 

Trump and Putin arrived Monday at Helsinki's presidential palace for a long-awaited summit, hours after Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations.

As the two leaders prepared to begin their summit, Trump told reporters that the U.S. and China "are the world's two biggest nuclear powers...That's a bad thing, not a good thing...I hope we can do something about that."

The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow's aggression may go unchallenged.

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse," Trump tweeted Monday morning, blaming "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"

The summit, which was being closely watched by rattled world capitals, was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump's presidential campaign. Undeterred, the American president was set to go face to face with Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.

Trump was greeted at the palace by Finland's president. The summit was starting later than scheduled because Putin arrived in Helsinki about a half hour late in another display of the Russian's leader famous lack of punctuality. Trump seemed to return the favor by waiting until Putin had arrived at the palace before leaving his hotel. Putin has been late for past meetings with the pope and British Queen, among many others.

Trump and his aides have repeatedly tried to lower expectations about what the summit will achieve. He told CBS News that he didn't "expect anything" from Putin, while his national security adviser said the U.S. wasn't looking for any "concrete deliverables." Trump told reporters during a breakfast Monday with Finland's president that he thought the summit would go "fine."

The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompted a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a "witch hunt."

Netanyahu: Leaders will discuss Iran, Syria

Last week, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew out to Moscow for talks with Putin that focused on Israel's demand that Iranian forces leave Syria. Netanyahu said he spoke to Trump on Saturday concerning "security and diplomatic issues in light of developments in the region, with Syria and Iran first and foremost, of course."

These issues, Netanyahu said, will also come up during Trump's meeting with Putin. "I thanked President Trump for his strong policy against Iran because since this policy has been taken, we have seen a great effect on – and inside – Iran.," Netanyahu said. "President Trump clearly reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel and his willingness to help the State of Israel in various fields and, of course, I thanked him for that."

Reuters contributed to this report