Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say they took the "first steps" toward mending badly strained ties between the United States and Russia, hailing a summit that critics of Trump described as playing directly into Putin's hands.
Trump and Putin made the remarks at a news conference after the July 16 summit in Helsinki, their first full-fledged meeting since Trump took office 18 months ago amid mounting concerns about what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian campaign of election interference ordered by Putin himself.
Standing beside Putin, Trump openly questioned his own intelligence agencies' conclusions on Russian interference and seemed to accept Putin's insistence that Russia's hands were clean.
"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," Trump said. "I don't see any reason why Russia would interfere in the 2016 election."
U.S. lawmakers, including influential Republicans as well as Democrats, were quick to criticize Trump for those remarks -- saying his performance at the press conference was "bizarre," "shameful," and "a shocking betrayal of his duties."
Putin called the talks at Finland's Presidential Palace "very successful and useful,” saying he and Trump discussed arms control, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, trade, and other issues during more than four hours of meetings -- initially one-on-one with only translators present and then at a working lunch with senior officials from both sides at the table.
Putin said Trump brought up the issue of Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 election that put the U.S. president in office. He said that he had wanted Trump to win because the Republican nominee had expressed a desire to improve relations with Moscow, but he repeated his denial that Moscow interfered.
Trump said that he addressed Putin "directly" about the allegations of meddling and that they spent a "great deal of time" talking about it, but he did not denounce Moscow over the matter and said that the Russian president was "strong and powerful in his denial."
The U.S. president came under additional pressure to challenge Putin on the alleged meddling -- or to call off the summit altogether -- after the U.S. Justice Department announced on July 13 that a grand jury has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers over hacking into the U.S. Democratic Party and leaking stolen e-mails and other information during the presidential campaign.
Trump repeated his denial of any collusion between his campaign and Russia, saying Justice Department special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into the matter has been a "disaster" for the United States and kept it "separated" from Russia.
Trump also defended his decision to meet with Putin, saying "diplomacy" is crucial and "productive dialogue" with Moscow is good for the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world.
"If we are going to solve many of the problems facing our world, we will have to find ways to cooperate," said Trump, who called the summit the "first important step" toward mending ties.
"Our relationship has never been worse than it is now," he said, but added: "However, that changed as of about four hours ago" -- a reference to the start of the summit and his one-on-one meeting with Putin.
Both Trump and Putin, who has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999, have made clear they want to ease severe strains in relations between the two countries.
Ties have been badly frayed by tensions over issues including Russia's takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its role in the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, and its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump expressed hopes that a deal to reduce the former Cold War superpowers' nuclear arsenals can eventually be reached, saying Russia and the United States possess about 90 percent of the world's nuclear arms.
"Hopefully we can do something about that," said Trump, who leaned forward in his chair and at one point winked at Putin, who sat slouched back a bit -- a familiar pose for the Russian president.
After the talks, Putin said that it is important to start a dialogue on nuclear weapons and that he made concrete proposals in this area.
He also said Russia and the United States should hold talks on extending the 2010 New START treaty, which was signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev and put new limits on the size of the two countries' nuclear arsenals.
No concrete agreement or treaty was reached -- and none had been expected, after both sides played down the chances of such a deal and cast the summit as a less formal step to put the relationship back on track.
But without a firm public denunciation on the alleged election meddling, the summit deepened the concerns of both Democrats and Republicans who feared that Trump would not press Putin on what officials in his own administration describe as "malign" activity around the globe.
Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump should recognize as a "lie" any statement by Putin denying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Republican Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said after the Trump-Putin press conference that there was “no question” that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that Trump “must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
“There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” Ryan said in a statement. “The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump’s comments at the press conference made the United States look like a “pushover.”
WATCH: Security incident moments before Trump/Putin press conference:
Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Trump's press conference appearance "was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory" and "a tragic mistake."
"President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin," McCain said. "No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."
Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the summit was a “missed opportunity” to hold Russia accountable for meddling in the 2016 election.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake tweeted: "I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful."
Republican Senator Ben Sasse called it “bizarre” and “flat-out wrong” to suggest that both countries are to blame for deteriorated relations.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said it was “dangerous and weak” for Trump to appear to side with Putin on the allegations of election interference.
“In the entire history of our country, Americans have never seen a president of the United States support an American adversary the way @realDonaldTrump has supported President Putin,” Schumer tweeted.
Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that Trump’s press conference performance “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”
“That press conference was a disgrace," U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower house of Congress, said in a statement. "The president has just committed a shocking betrayal of his duties: dismissing Russia’s attack on American democracy while standing on foreign soil next to America’s chief adversary."
"President Trump made clear that he continues to confuse a good relationship with Putin with a good relationship between our two countries," former NATO Deputy Secretary-General and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told CNN on July 16, ahead of the meeting.
“It looks like he is going to give the Russians a pass on the invasion of Crimea, on the interference in our election, on the aggressive stance they've pursued in Syria,” Vershbow said. “So I worry that we are going to come out at the short end.”
Many analysts said before the meeting that the summit itself would be a win for Putin, who they described as eager to show that Russia is dealing with the United States on equal footing and is not isolated -- despite sanctions and widespread condemnation over its actions abroad since the takeover of Crimea in 2014.
Trump made no mention during the press conference about Crimea or the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,300, including the 298 passengers and crew of a Malaysian airliner that was shot down -- by a missile brought in from Russia -- on July 17, 2014.
But Putin said Trump had stood firmly by the U.S. position that Russia's annexation of Crimea was illegitimate. The Russian president urged the United States to put more pressure on Kyiv to implement the 2015 Minsk agreements meant to end the war in eastern Ukraine.
Hours before the summit, Trump set a tone of confrontation with his domestic opponents by tweeting that the U.S.-Russian relationship "has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!" -- a reference to Mueller's probe.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, which has accused Trump's domestic opponents and the U.S. establishment of thwarting efforts to improve relations, liked Trump's tweet and responded: "We agree."
Trump's tweet drew fire from Democrats in the United States.
"Our relationship with Russia is strained because of the very malign actions he's refusing to take Russia to task for," Democratic U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.
Putin's plane touched down at the Helsinki airport some 30 minutes or more behind schedule, pushing the start of the summit back by nearly an hour. Trump arrived in Helsinki on July 15 after a contentious July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to Britain.
As Trump was meeting with Putin in Helsinki, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament in London that Russia’s leadership is committed to trying to undermine Western values on multiple fronts.
May condemned what she says was Russia’s use of a lethal nerve agent within Britain, its shielding of the Syrian government, its support for Iran, and what she described as the spreading of malicious fake news” on an industrial scale.
May welcomed the meeting between Trump and Putin but wants to see Russia change its actions.