ELLESBOROUGH, England – President Donald Trump said Friday he will ask Russian President Vladimir Putin “firmly” about Moscow’s involvement in the last presidential election, but warned the “stupidity” of domestic politics and the ongoing probe into the issue is holding him back.
Trump, who will hold his first summit with Putin in Helsinki on Monday after meeting with NATO allies, said he does not have high expectations for resolving key disputes between the two countries and would instead focus on building a relationship with the Russian leader.
“I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump said of documented Russian meddling in the 2016 election. “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it. You got me!’ There won’t be Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
Trump, who shook NATO allies earlier in the week by demanding they increase defense spending, while criticizing the leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom, said he also planned to use the meeting to discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and nuclear proliferation.
Speaking at a press conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump demurred on a question of whether the U.S. and Russia could realistically build a stronger alliance given Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. He answered by blaming former President Barack Obama for not doing enough at the time to respond to the crisis.
“This was an Obama disaster,” Trump said. “I think if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea.”
Democrats railed against Trump’s European tour, and said they were wary of the upcoming, one-on-one meeting with Putin.
“He gives the back of the hand to our closest allies and embraces people like Putin,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.
The president also blamed the special counsel’s probe into Russian meddling for harming U.S.-Russian relations. He referenced a day-long hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday in which Republicans grilled FBI agent Peter Strzok for anti-Trump text messages he sent while leading earlier probes of the campaign.
The Department of Justice inspector general rebuked the text messages in report last month, calling them “antithetical to the core values of the FBI.” But investigators said they did not find evidence Strzok’s personal beliefs had influenced the investigation.
Trump pointed to the texts to label the ongoing investigation a “rigged witch hunt,” and said the probe “really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite a tumultuous NATO meeting, Trump said the 29 member states reached consensus in touting what he described as commitments by those other countries to increase their defense spending.
Trump has not said specifically what commitments he secured. Several European leaders said after the meeting that they agreed only to continue to make progress toward spending goals set in 2014.
Trump has said ally contributions to NATO have increased by $33 billion since last year.
“We have left NATO with more money, with more unity, with more spirit than NATO has probably ever had,” Trump said. “We have been far tougher on Russia than anybody. We have been extremely tough on Russia.”
As Trump walked away from the press conference in Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked him, “Will you ask Putin to stay out of U.S. elections?”
Trump looked over his shoulder and said, “Yes.”