Trump denies Putin ties: ‘Never met’ him

Ben Brody
Bloomberg News

Donald Trump backtracked on claims that he’s had “a relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid questions about his embrace of a traditional U.S. adversary at a time Russia’s been implicated in hacking Democratic Party computers.

“I have no relationship with Putin,” the Republican presidential nominee said several times during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that aired on Sunday. “He said very nice things about me, but I have no relationship with him.”

Trump also said that he had “never met” Putin and had “never spoken to him on the phone,” although Trump also hedged by saying he didn’t think he’d ever met Putin and thought he would remember if he had.

Meantime, both the NFL and the Commission on Presidential Debates are rejecting Trump’s assertions about the fall debates, which the billionaire businessman says have been rigged by his opponents to draw a smaller audience by scheduling two of them at the same time as a football game.

The Daily Beast this week uncovered a 2013 interview with Trump in Moscow in which he said, “I do have a relationship” with Putin, although the two men did not meet, according to the report. He wondered on Twitter in 2013 whether Putin would show up at the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Moscow — “if so, will he become my new best friend?”

Trump’s possible ties to Putin have come under scrutiny since he said on July 27 that he hoped Russia, which is said to have hacked the Democratic National Committee, could find deleted messages sent by Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state.

Democrats have suggested that Trump’s and Putin’s amity provided the reasoning for the hacks, if Russia hopes to influence the outcome of the presidential election. After a backlash, Trump said he was being “sarcastic” in the remarks about Russia and hacking.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which released more than 19,000 hacked emails from the DNC on July 22, refused repeatedly on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to say whether the Russian government provided the documents.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked in 2010 for pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, helping him win an election as Ukraine’s president. ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether his campaign had worked to soften language toward Ukraine in the official Republican platform.

“I was not involved in that,” Trump said. “I’d have to take a look at it.”

Manafort said on “Meet the Press” that the platform changes on Ukraine “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign” or him specifically.

Trump said that Putin was “not going to go into Ukraine,” even though Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. At the time Putin proclaimed a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there.

Asked if the U.S. would improve its relationship with Russia by “bowing to the annexation of Crimea,” Trump reflected on the pro-Russian sentiment among some in the disputed area. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” he said. “You have to look at that.”

Manafort, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said Trump “has made it very clear he views Russia to be somebody that we need to be firm with.”

“Mr. Trump has said on the campaign trail the biggest threat is failed leadership on the part of Obama and Clinton,” he said. “He views Russia as a foreign power head that has its own interests at stake, and we, the United States, have to put America’s interest first.”

When asked about the debates during an interview for Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC, Trump said: “Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t like. It’s against two NFL games. I got a letter from the NFL saying, ‘This is ridiculous. Why are the debates against’ — ’cause the NFL doesn’t wanna go against the debates. ’Cause the debates are gonna be pretty massive, from what I understand, OK?”

Asked about Trump’s assertion, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tweeted on Saturday: “While we’d obviously wish the Debate Commission could find another night, we did not send a letter to Mr Trump.”

A Trump aide said Saturday that the Republican candidate “was made aware of the conflicting dates by a source close to the league.” The aide was not authorized to speak by name and requested anonymity.

The nonpartisan, independent presidential debate commission serves as the event sponsor and sets the participation criteria, dates, sites and formats. The sites and dates for three presidential debates were announced in September 2015.

“The CPD did not consult with any political parties or campaigns in making these decisions,” the commission said in a statement issued Saturday.

Associated Press contributed.