Any politicians worth their salt need to know how to duck hard questions from journalists, and U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin amply proved their political worth at the joint press conference following their summit on July 16 in Helsinki.
Although the two leaders took only a few questions from journalists, both presidents passed up opportunities to provide direct answers to pointed queries.
A Reuters journalist asked Trump about a post on his Twitter account earlier in the day in which he blamed the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations on "many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity."
The reporter gave Trump the chance to share at least some of the blame with Moscow, asking, "Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular?"
Trump responded not by discussing Russia but by claiming to hold "both countries responsible," before proceeding to double down on his accusations against the United States.
"I think that the United States has been foolish," he said. "I think we've all been foolish. We should've had this dialogue a long time ago -- a long time, frankly, before I got to office."
He fired off another attack on the investigation of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possibly illegal contacts between Russian agents and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. He stressed that there was "no collusion at all," which he said was "the main thing." Trump added that he had discussed "zero collusion" with Putin, without giving any specifics.
Where do you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?"-- Russian President Vladimir Putin
When the same reporter asked Putin why Trump and the American people should believe his denials that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election, Putin used a philosophical evasion.
"As to who is to be believed and to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one if you take it like this," he said. "Where do you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?"
Asked whether he would extradite to the United States 12 Russian military intelligence officers recently indicted on charges of interfering with the U.S. election, Putin described the men as "alleged intelligence officers" and launched into a long explanation of a 1999 treaty on Mutual Assistance on Criminal Cases, saying Moscow would be happy to question the men for U.S. officials and even to allow those officials to be present at the questioning.
He then segued into a speech about U.S. investor Bill Browder, who has campaigned relentlessly against Moscow over the 2009 death in custody of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Putin alleged that U.S. intelligence officers helped Magnitsky transfer a "huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of [Democratic Party candidate and former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton."
I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."-- U.S. President Donald Trump
"We have solid reason to believe that some [U.S.] intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions," Putin charged, adding that Moscow would like a "reciprocal" opportunity to question "officials, including officers of law enforcement and intelligence services of the United States whom we believe…have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia."
Toward the end of the Helsinki press conference, Trump passed up on a chance to say unambiguously whether he believes Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies on the question of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. He also passed when the Associated Press reporter gave him an opportunity to "warn [Putin] to never do it again."
Instead of answering the questions directly, Trump began by criticizing the FBI for not confiscating the hacked e-mail server of the Democratic National Committee.
"Where is the server?" he asked. "I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying."
He then said his director of national intelligence, Dan Coates, "and some others" had told him "they think it is Russia," while Putin denies it.
"I don't see any reason why it would be [Russia]," Trump said. "But I really do want to see the server."
"I have great confidence in my intelligence people," Trump added. "But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."
Then he twice called Putin's suggestion that Russian officials question the indicted Russian intelligence officers in the presence of Mueller's investigators an "incredible offer."
Putin concluded the proceeding by ducking a question about whether Russia has "any compromising material on President Trump or his family."
Rather than saying "yes" or "no," Putin said he had "heard" about "rumors" of such material "allegedly" gathered when Trump was in Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe Pageant.
Putin said he did not even know that Trump was in Moscow at the time (as if compromising information could not have been collected anyway).
"Back then, he was a private individual, a businessman," Putin said. "Nobody informed me that he was in Moscow."
"Let's take the [recent] St. Petersburg Economic Forum," Putin then digressed. "There were over 500 American businessmen there -- high-ranking, high-level ones. I don't even remember the last names of each and every one of them.... Do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? It's hard to imagine a bigger piece of nonsense. Please, just disregard these issues and don't think about this anymore again."