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Donald Trump said Vladimir Putin was sincere in denying Russian interference in the US election but the US president also voiced confidence in the intelligence agencies that believe Moscow meddled in the race.
Mr Trump sparked controversy on Saturday when he told reporters that the Russian president felt “insulted” by the claims of meddling and that Mr Putin’s denials were genuine. Speaking in Hanoi on Sunday, however, the US president appeared to change his position.
“As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies,” he said at a press conference with Vietnamese president Than Dai Quang.
Following Mr Trump’s remarks on Saturday, John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, slammed the president.
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of KGB colonel over US intelligence community,” he tweeted in a reference to Mr Putin’s early career with the Soviet intelligence agency.
The Director for National Intelligence, which oversees the US intelligence community, in January released a report in which the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency all concluded that Mr Putin had orchestrated a campaign to help Mr Trump defeat Hillary Clinton and that the Russian government “had a clear preference” for the New York mogul to win the election.
Speaking on Air Force One on Saturday en route from Da Nang, where he attended the Apec summit, to Hanoi, Mr Trump said the men who led the CIA, FBI and DNI when the Russia report was released were “political hacks” and that the Russia claims were an “artificial Democratic hit job”. While he expressed confidence in the intelligence agencies on Sunday, not one has altered its views since January.
Mr Trump also stressed that Russia had been “very, very heavily sanctioned” in recent months, and that it was time to find ways for Washington and Moscow to work more closely together.
“It is now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken,” he said. “Having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability.”
On Sunday Mr Trump also repeated his argument that the damage to the US-Russia relationship from the election allegations was hurting efforts to tackle the North Korean nuclear crisis.
“It is very important to be able to get along with Russia, to get along with China,” the US president said. “Russia and China in particular can help us with the North Korea problem, which is one of our truly great problems.”
North Korea topped the agenda during Mr Trump’s visits to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. While anxiety about Pyongyang is mounting, there are concerns that Washington may be preparing to take military action against the Kim Jim Jong Un regime.
On Saturday Mr Trump said that following his meetings with Xi Jinping, he believed the Chinese president was prepared to ratchet up the pressure.
Earlier on Sunday Mr Trump ridiculed Mr Kim after media in Pyongyang called him a “dotard” — in what has become the standard North Korean description for the US leader.
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!” Mr Trump said on Twitter, which he has used frequently during his 11-day tour of Asia, which ends on Wednesday in Manila.
As Mr Trump was firing his tweet at Mr Kim, his navy was starting one of its biggest exercises in the western Pacific, in what was a clear signal to the regime in Pyongyang.
The US navy on Sunday released photos and videos showing the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz conducting exercises with Japanese maritime self-defence forces. It is highly unusual for the US to have three aircraft carriers, with their accompanying warships and submarines, in the western Pacific at the same time.
Asked later on Sunday whether he could really envisage himself becoming friends with the North Korean leader, Mr Trump said that “strange things happen in life”.
“That might be a strange thing to happen, but it’s certainly a possibility,” Mr Trump said. “It would be a good thing . . . for North Korea . . . and it would be good for the world. So certainly it is something that could happen. I don’t know that it will, but it would be very, very nice if it did.”
Speaking in front of reporters at the start of his meeting with the Vietnamese president, Mr Trump also offered to help Vietnam and China sort out their differences over the South China Sea, in comments that are likely to be met with scorn in China, which does not want the US interfering in the contentious issue.
“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know,” Mr Trump said. “I am a very good mediator.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi