Trump jokes to Putin: ‘Don’t meddle in the election’

Jonathan Lemire and Zeke Miller
Associated Press
President Donald Trump, right, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019.

Osaka, Japan – With a smirk and a finger point, President Donald Trump dryly told Russia’s Vladimir Putin “Don’t meddle in the election” in their first meeting since the special counsel concluded that Moscow extensively interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to criticize the president, saying he was making light of Russian meddling in the election. It was the two leaders’ first meeting since special counsel Robert Mueller said that while Moscow intervened, he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The exchange at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka echoed one of the defining moments of Trump’s presidency from a year ago in Helsinki, Finland. There, Trump pointedly did not admonish Putin about election interference and also did not side with U.S. intelligence agencies over his Russian counterpart.

On Friday, as the two leaders prepared to meet one on one, a reporter asked Trump if he would warn Putin not to meddle in the 2020 election.

“Of course,” the president replied. Then he turned to Putin and facetiously said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” He playfully repeated the request while pointing at Putin, who laughed.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the joke is on America and “Putin’s the only one laughing.”

“President Trump is basically giving Putin a green light to interfere in 2020,” Schumer tweeted.

Former President Jimmy Carter had even harsher words for Trump. The Democrat said he believed Russian interference put Trump into the White House, but didn’t offer any proof.

“There is no doubt that the Russians did interfere in the election,” Carter said at a human rights discussion in Leesburg, Virginia. “I think the interference, though not yet quantified, if fully investigated would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016. He lost the election and was put into office because the Russians interfered.”

Trump told reporters that “many positive things” would come out of his good relationship with Putin, who invited him to visit Russia next year to mark the 75th anniversary of the allied victory in World War II.

The friendly tone of Putin’s exchange with Trump stood in sharp contrast to the Russian leader’s frosty meeting Friday with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May.

May again confronted Putin over the March 2018 nerve agent attack on double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British city of Salisbury. They spent weeks in critical condition and eventually recovered. Britain has accused Russia of poisoning them with the nerve agent Novichok, which Moscow has denied.

Before their meeting – their first since the poisoning that also resulted in the death of a British citizen – May said Britain would push for the two Russian military intelligence officers accused of involvement in the attack to be brought to justice. She told Putin during the meeting that “there cannot be a normalization of our bilateral relationship until Russia stops the irresponsible and destabilizing activity,” according to Downing Street.

In an interview earlier this week with the Financial Times, Putin again insisted that Russia had nothing to do with the poisoning and argued that bilateral ties were far more important than “the fuss about spies not worth five copecks.”

Putin also told the Financial Times that he disputes the Mueller report’s conclusion that Russia had systemically interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. He called it “mythical interference.”

Putin said Trump got elected because he saw changes in American society and took advantage of them.

Putin, who has highlighted national populist movements in Europe and America, praised Trump for trying to stop the flow of migrants and drugs from Mexico and told the newspaper that he thinks liberalism – the main political ideology in the West since the end of World War II – is dead.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done – that migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected,” Putin said.

“Every crime must have its punishment. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

While Trump has long placed a premium on establishing close personal ties with Putin, his administration has increased sanctions and other pressures on the Russian government.

The United States and Russia also are on opposing sides of the escalating crisis with Iran, which shot down an American drone last week. Trump nixed a possible retaliatory air strike, but says the U.S. remains firm that Tehran should not have nuclear weapons and that it needs to stop supporting militant groups.

At a summit last November in Argentina, Trump canceled his meeting with Putin over Russia’s seizure of two Ukrainian vessels and their crew in the Sea of Azov. Those crew members remain detained, yet Trump opted to forge ahead with the Osaka meeting. Trump said Friday alongside Putin that the fate of the sailors had yet to be discussed.

The leaders also have announced their withdrawal from a key arms control pact, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is set to terminate this summer, raising fears of a new arms race. Another major nuclear agreement, the New Start Treaty, is set to expire in 2021 unless Moscow and Washington negotiate an extension.

The White House said after Friday’s meeting that the leaders agreed to keep talking about a “21st century model of arms control,” which Trump said needs to include China. In addition to Iran, the two leaders also discussed Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine. The U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides on those three issues too.

Trump also is keeping an eye on the race to replace him back home. Ten Democrats met in Miami, Florida, on Thursday night as part of the first debates of the 2020 presidential race.

“I just passed a television set on the way here. I saw that health care and maximum health care was given to 100% of the illegal immigrants coming into our country by the Democrats,” Trump said. He also told German Chancellor Merkel during their meeting that a debate the previous night “wasn’t very exciting.”

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.