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(BBC) – US President Donald Trump has defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 presidential election.
After face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Trump contradicted US intelligence agencies and said there had been no reason for Russia to meddle in the vote.
Mr Putin reiterated that Russia had never interfered in US affairs.
The two men held nearly two hours of closed-door talks in the Finnish capital Helsinki on Monday.
At a news conference after the summit, President Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.
“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he replied.
US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.
What has US reaction been?
In a strongly-worded statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said Mr 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,” he said, adding that there was “no question” Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.
“The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.”
Senior Republican Senator John McCain said it was a “disgraceful performance” by a US president.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” Mr McCain said in a statement.
Another senior Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr Trump had sent the Kremlin a message of US “weakness”.
He tweeted: “Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.”
In a series of tweets, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump’s actions had “strengthened our adversaries while weakening our defences and those of our allies”.
The US Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, also issued a statement saying that the intelligence community had been clear about Russia’s “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to undermine US democracy.
Some US politicians had called for the summit to be cancelled after 12 Russian military intelligence agents were indicted last week by US special counsel Robert Mueller, accused of hacking the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Speaking on Monday, President Putin offered to allow US investigators to visit Russia to question the officers.
He made it clear that, in return, Russia would want similar access to people in the US it suspects of criminal activity.
President Trump said Mr Putin had been “extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of any election meddling.
Mr Putin described the Helsinki meeting as “candid and useful” while Mr Trump said there had been “deeply productive dialogue”.
Mr Trump said US-Russia relations had “never been worse” than before they met, but that had now changed.
Relations between Russia and the West were severely strained by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which President Putin acknowledged in the news conference.
“President Trump’s position on Crimea is well known. He talks about the illegality of the Crimean reintegration to Russia. We have another point of view… that a referendum was held in accordance with international law. For us, it’s a closed question,” he said.
Both leaders also said they would work together to help resolve the Syrian crisis. The US and Russia back opposing sides in the eight-year-old civil war.
“Our militaries have gotten along better than our political leaders for a number of years and we get along in Syria too,” Mr Trump said.
He added that the US wanted to increase humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
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