President Donald Trump on Sunday tried to walk back his claim that Russia did not meddle in the American election last year amid a growing outcry that he was playing into Moscow’s hands.
Instead he tried to have it both ways, saying he believed US intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russian officials tried to influence the outcome but that he also respected the sincerity of Vladimir Putin’s denials.
The issue has at times dominated his tour of Asia which has brought Mr Trump face-to-face with strongmen leaders like Mr Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines.
“I believe that [Mr Putin] feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” said Mr Trump at a news conference in Hanoi.
“As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies. As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
He also said he did not believe Mr Putin was personally involved and lashed out at former heads of US intelligence agencies calling them “political hacks”.
The CIA and other agencies have presented evidence that Russian officials tried to help Mr Trump defeat his rival, Hillary Clinton.
In January, the intelligence community released a report concluding that Mr Putin himself ordered the “influence campaign”.
A federal investigation into whether Mr Trump’s team colluded with that effort has already led to charges against three members of the campaign, and the scrutiny has frequently prompted the president to accuse political opponents of trying to undermine his win.
But former senior intelligence officials say they are mystified about why he failed to push back against Mr Putin and that he was at risk of being manipulated by a leader who rose through the ranks of the KGB before becoming Russian president.
John Brennan, former CIA director, said it was dangerous that Mr Trump did not condemn Mr Putin’s role.
“I think it demonstrates to Mr Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint,” he told CNN’s State of the Union.
James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, told CNN: “Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process. To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and poses a peril to this country.”
The issue has cast a long shadow over Mr Trump’s White House and at times dominated his five-nation tour of Asia.
On Saturday he told reporters aboard Air Force One that Mr Putin again denied any interference when the two met during an economic conference in Danang, Vietnam.
“Every time he sees me, he says: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe — that when he tells me that, he means it,” said Mr Trump.
Trump says Putin’s insulted by election interference claims
He arrived in the Philippines on Sunday for the final leg of his trip. The American president has previously praised the country’s violent war on drugs, despite allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings.
His host, Mr Duterte, has sometimes been called the “Trump of the East” for his brash, no-holds-barred style.
Mr Trump has frequently been at odds with Asian and Pacific leaders who are forging ahead with free-trade deals.
And hours before they were due to meet, Mr Duterte delivered another snub, casting further doubt on American economic leadership in the region.
“Today China is the number one economic power, and we have to be friends,” he told a business conference in Manila.