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Trump under fresh scrutiny over relationship with Putin

  • Jim Mannion

    Agence France-Presse

Washington, United States   /   Mon, January 14, 2019   /   08:19 am
Trump under fresh scrutiny over relationship with Putin US President Donald Trump (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin smile as they attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. The US and Russian leaders opened an historic summit in Helsinki, with Donald Trump promising an (AFP/Yuri Kadobnov)

US President Donald Trump faced uncomfortable new questions Sunday about his relationship with Vladimir Putin despite his angry dismissal of a report that he has kept top aides in the dark about his private conversations with the Russian leader.

Republican lawmakers generally defended the president, saying he had been tougher on Russia than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, but some had questions.

"I want to find out a little bit more about what happened there," said Senator Ted Cruz, on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I want to learn more than just the allegations in the press."

But he said most Americans outside of Washington were not interested in the subject.

The Post reported that Trump has gone to unusual lengths to keep his private talks with Putin secret, withholding details from senior officials and at one point even taking away his own interpreter's notes.

That account followed another in The New York Times that the FBI became so alarmed after Trump fired director James Comey in May 2017 that it opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether he was acting on Russia's behalf.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican, told "Fox News Sunday" that he does not trust the Times, but added that "if this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it."

'Most insulting' question 

Trump, asked in an interview with Fox News late Saturday, "Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia," responded: "I think that's the most insulting thing I've ever been asked."   

"I'm not keeping anything under wraps, I couldn't care less. I mean, it's so ridiculous," he told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, without directly denying the Post story.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement calling the Post story "so outrageously inaccurate it doesn't even warrant a response."

Democrats weren't convinced, however.

"You know, there's so many questions raised," said Senator Dick Durbin, a top Democrat, on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Why is he so chummy with Vladimir Putin, this man who is a former KGB agent, never been a friend to the United States, invaded our allies, threatens us around the world, and tries his damndest to undermine our elections, why is this President Trump's best buddy? I don't get it."

John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat who has announced a run for the White House, called Trump's behavior toward Russia "highly suspicious," adding, "We haven't had a president who has been as supportive of Vladimir Putin in decades."

And Adam Schiff, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that Democrats on the committee had sought last year to obtain interpreters' notes or testimony about Trump's private meeting with Putin in Helsinki, but Republicans voted them down.

"Will they join us now? Shouldn’t we find out whether our president is really putting 'America first?'" he asked.

In the Fox News interview, Trump said he did not care if details of the July 2018 meeting were made public.

"Anybody could have listened to that meeting, that meeting is up for grabs."

Mueller probe looms 

The reports come as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation looms large in the background, punctuated by guilty pleas, convictions and indictments of former Trump associates.

These include his former national security advisor Michael Flynn; former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort; and Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his Moscow ties. Manafort was convicted of financial crimes related to political work he did in Ukraine before the 2016 election as well as witness tampering. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for multiple crimes, including lying to Congress.

Cohen, who has agreed to testify before Congress on February 7, has disclosed that he negotiated to build a Trump hotel in Moscow up until his boss's nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

Manafort, meanwhile, has admitted to sharing polling data with a Russian during the 2016 presidential race, according to a court filing inadvertently made public by his lawyers. CNN reported that the intended recipients were two pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarchs.

Manafort has denied lying to investigators about his dealings with the Russian, Konstantin Kilimnik, a political consultant with alleged intelligence ties, claiming he merely forgot details during the hectic campaign.

Trump has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt," denying any collusion with Russia's attempt to sway the 2016 election.

Mueller has been expected to wrap up a report on his findings soon. But the grand jury impaneled to hear evidence has been extended beyond its original 18-month mandate, suggesting investigators have more work to do.

As the Mueller investigation nears an apparent end, Democratic Senator Mark Warner told CNN that the question of whether Trump ever worked on the Russians' behalf is central -- the probe's "defining question."