Questions about Russian meddling follow Trump to Asia

HANOI (AP) – Questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election have followed President Donald Trump overseas to Asia.

Trump said during a news conference yesterday in Vietnam’s capital that he believes US intelligence agencies, which have concluded Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election to help him win. But Trump also says he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when Putin claims his country did no such thing.

“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said of Putin at a news conference with Vietnam’s president in Hanoi. “As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies.”

He added, “As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”

Top US intelligence officials, including those at the CIA, have concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help the Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

A special counsel and multiple Congressional committees are also investigating potential collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign aides. That probe has so far led to the indictments of Trump’s former campaign chairman and another top aide for financial and other crimes unrelated to the campaign, as well as a guilty plea from a Trump foreign policy adviser.

US President Donald Trump gestures before boarding Air Force One to depart to the Philippines at the airport in Hanoi yesterday. Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. – AFP

Trump’s comment came shortly before he took off for the Philippines, the final stop of his five-country maiden trip to Asia. Trump is slated to attend a pair of international summits over the next two days as well as meet with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte several times while in Manila.

Duterte has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups for overseeing a violent drug war complete with extrajudicial killings. Trump has previously praised Duterte’s handling of his nation’s drug problems.

Questions about whether Trump believed the intelligence community’s conclusion about Russian election meddling have trailed Trump since January, when he said for the first time at a news conference shortly before taking office that he accepted Russia was behind the election year hacking of Democrats that roiled the White House race.

But the issue wasn’t settled.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday on his way to Hanoi, Trump had said that Putin again vehemently denied the allegations – this time on the sidelines of an economic conference in the seaside city of Danang. Trump danced around questions of whether he believed Putin, but stressed Putin’s denials. He also accused Democrats of using the issue to try to sabotage relations between the two countries, putting lives at risk.

“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, arguing that it made no sense for him to belabour the issue when Russia could be helpful to the US in dealing with North Korea, Syria and other places.