WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Sunday that "it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia" after his lengthy meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany. But he is still avoiding the question of whether he accepts Putin's denial that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 election.
Speaking in a series of tweets the morning after returning from a world leaders' summit in Germany, Trump said he "strongly pressed" Putin twice over Russian meddling during their meeting Friday.
Trump said that Putin "vehemently denied" the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russian hackers and propagandists tried to sway the election in Trump's favor. But Trump would not say whether he believed Putin, tweeting only that he's "already given my opinion."
Trump has said he believes that Russia probably hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton staffers, but that other countries were likely involved as well.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first told reporters in Germany on Friday that Trump had accepted Putin's assurances that Russia hadn't meddled — an assertion Putin repeated Saturday after the Group of 20 summit. Putin said he left the meeting thinking that Trump believed his in-person denials following their discussion, which lasted more than two hours.
"He asked questions, I replied. It seemed to me that he was satisfied with the answers," Putin said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not answer directly when asked Sunday if Trump had accepted Putin's denial. Tillerson was the only other American official in the room when Trump and Putin met on Friday.
But White House chief of staff Reince Preibus took issue with Putin's characterization. "The president absolutely didn't believe the denial of President Putin," Priebus said on "Fox News Sunday."
Priebus and other administration officials said Trump did not want Russian interference in last year's election to prevent working with Putin's government on other issues, including the civil war in Syria.
"You know, the past, I don't know if we will ever come to an agreement, obviously with our Russian counterparts on that. I think the important thing is how do we assure that this doesn't happen again," Tillerson told reporters in Kiev, Ukraine.
Tillerson said that, "In all candidness, we did not expect an answer other than the one we received" from Russia.
But in a show of U.S.-Russian cooperation, officials announced during the trip that the two sides had brokered a cease-fire in southern Syria that went into effect Sunday. Trump tweeted that the deal "will save lives."
The two sides also agreed to create a cybersecurity task force to ensure that "election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded," Trump tweeted.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was among critics of the task force on Twitter and Sunday morning news shows.
"It's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard, but it's pretty close," Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Another Senate Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida, said on Twitter that "partnering with Putin on a 'Cyber Security Unit' is akin to partnering with Assad on a 'Chemical Weapons Unit.'" Rubio was referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime's use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
--Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Kiev, Ukraine.