HANOI, Vietnam - Donald Trump said Sunday he backed US intelligence agencies who concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election, but repeated his trust in the sincerity of Vladimir Putin's denials and slammed critics of his relationship with the Russian leader.
Key former Trump aides are under US investigation for possible collaboration with the Kremlin and the issue of whether Moscow interfered with last year's vote has overshadowed the tail end of the president's ongoing Asia tour.
President Trump called a trio of former heads of U.S. intelligence agencies 'political hacks'https://t.co/pElyphiHZ3— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) November 12, 2017
Trump returned to the subject in an early morning Twitter storm, which also saw him take a sarcastic dig at North Korea's "short and fat" leader Kim Jong-Un.
Addressing a press conference in Hanoi, Trump was asked to clarify comments he had made on Air Force One the day before about Putin's insistence that Moscow had never tried to affect the outcome of the US vote.
"I believe he feels he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said.
Trump said he repeatedly asked Putin about the claims during their chats at the APEC summit in the Vietnamese resort of Danang.
"He (Putin) said he didn't meddle. I asked him again," Trump told reporters on Air Force One as he flew to Hanoi for a state visit.
"You can only ask so many times... He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election," Trump said, adding he felt Putin seemed "very insulted" by the persistent accusations, which was "not a good thing for our country."
"I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," added Trump, who is marking one year since his shock election victory.
CIA chief Mike Pompeo: Putin attacked 2016 election.— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) November 11, 2017
DNI Dan Coats: Putin attacked 2016 election.
FBI director Christopher Wray: Putin attacked 2016 election.
NSA head Mike Rogers: Putin attacked 2016 election.
Putin: I did not attack 2016 election.
Trump: I believe Putin.
"As to whether or not I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies. I believe in our... intelligence agencies," he added.
In May, US intelligence chiefs told Congress that they agreed with their analysts' conclusion that Russia had meddled in the election.
And in January, 17 US intelligence agencies took the extraordinary step of stating publicly that they believed Russia did try to interfere in the election.
CIA director Mike Pompeo, who was appointed by Trump, said he still believed in that evaluation in a statement to CNN Saturday.
In his barrage of tweets earlier Sunday, Trump slammed "haters and fools" who questioned his efforts to improve ties with Russia.
"There (sic) always playing politics - bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!" he said.
Some US lawmakers criticised Trump harshly for his statement.
There's nothing "America First" about taking the word of KGB colonel over US intelligence community. There's no "principled realism" in cooperating w/ Russia to prop up murderous Assad regime. To believe otherwise is naive & places nat'l security at risk. https://t.co/SYiVHtHXPX— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) November 11, 2017
Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump "fools no one."
Schiff said Trump understands the Russians hacked into Democratic leaders' emails and dumped them, and used social media in a bid to hurt Hillary Clinton and help him win the election and divide the country.
"He understands all this and more," Schiff said in a statement. "He just doesn't understand how to put country over self. Or to put it in terms he is more familiar with — Mr. Trump simply can't bring himself to put America first."
John McCain, a longtime Trump critic, added: "There is nothing 'America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community."
'Short and fat'
Trump was in Hanoi for a brisk visit with Vietnam's top communist leaders to drum up trade deals and seek further support on containing North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, which have been a dominant theme on each leg of his Asia tour.
Citing descriptions by North Korean officials and state media of him as an "old" man, another Trump tweet suggested he was disappointed by what he took to be a personal attack from the North's young leader.
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Trump wrote.
"Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!" he added.
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
Later at the press conference, he insisted he hadn't been joking about eventually befriending a man he denounced just last week as a "twisted" dictator.
"It's certainly a possibility. If that did happen, it would be a good thing,” he told reporters.
North Korea is extremely sensitive to any remarks that might appear disrespectful of the country' ruling Kim dynasty, whose members are revered as near deities.
Since becoming president, Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with Kim, trading personal insults and threats of military strikes and raising concerns about an outbreak of hostilities.
Over the past week, Trump has urged Asian leaders to take a united front against the threat posed by the isolated North, warning at APEC that the region "must not be held hostage".
Late Saturday, Pyongyang hit back, calling his Asia trip "a warmonger's visit for confrontation" and saying it would only serve to accelerate Pyongyang’s push for nuclear statehood.
South China Sea support
In another tweet Sunday, Trump said Chinese leader Xi Jinping had agreed to toughen sanctions against North Korea, whose impoverished economy is hugely reliant on trade with its giant neighbour.
"President Xi of China has stated that he is upping the sanctions against (North Korea). Said he wants them to denuclearise. Progress is being made," he wrote.
The US administration thinks China's economic leverage over North Korea is the key to strong-arming Pyongyang into halting its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Trump leaves Hanoi for the Philippines later Sunday, which will be last stop in his marathon tour through Asia.
Philippines and Vietnam are two countries that have sparred with Beijing on overlapping claims in the resource rich South China Sea.
Vietnam has sought military support from Washington on the dispute, and dealmaker Trump said Sunday he could help mediate the conflict.
"If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know... I am a very good mediator," Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.
Trump, during a bilat with the president of Vietnam, offered to arbitrate disputes over South China Sea: "If I can help in any way, I'm a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator"— Dan Merica (@danmericaCNN) November 12, 2017
In the past, China has reacted angrily to any suggestion of US mediation, saying Washington has no role in the dispute.