Putin dismisses, but doesn't quite deny, rumors Russia has compromised Trump

Asked about widespread suspicions that the Russian government possesses compromising intelligence on President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged hearing those “rumors” and urged journalists to ignore them. But he did not explicitly deny it.

Putin was asked about the allegations, which originally surfaced in a dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, in a highly anticipated joint press conference with Trump after the two leaders met privately in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. The dossier contained uncorroborated reports that the Kremlin had taped Trump with prostitutes in his hotel room in Moscow during a 2013 visit.

President Trump listens as Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Photo: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

Jonathan Lemire, a White House reporter for the Associated Press, asked, “Can you tell me what President Trump may have indicated to you about officially recognizing Crimea as part of Russia? And secondly, sir, does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or on his family?”

The audience laughed briefly before Putin responded that Trump’s position is well known and that he still thinks Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 was illegal. Putin, as expected, defended the action and said that Russia had acted in accordance with international law.

“And now to the compromising material,” Putin said. “Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Our distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn’t even know he was in Moscow.”

In November 2013, Trump was in the Russian capital for the Miss Universe pageant. Putin said he wasn’t even aware that Trump was visiting at the time. But, as Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff and Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn reveal in their book “Russian Roulette,” Trump and Putin were very much aware of each other’s presence:

“Once in Moscow, Trump received a private message from the Kremlin, delivered by Aras Agalarov, an oligarch close to Putin and Trump’s partner in hosting the Miss Universe event there: ‘Mr. Putin would like to meet Mr. Trump.’ That excited Trump. The American developer thought there was a strong chance the Russian leader would attend the pageant. But as his time in Russia wore on, Trump heard nothing else. He became uneasy.”

At the Finnish press conference, Putin did not actually explicitly deny the allegation that Russian operatives collected information on Trump, raising the possibility that Putin wants Trump to think he has compromising information — whether he does or not.

Putin suggested he would have had no interest in surveilling Trump back when he was a “private person” — despite the fact that he was among the most famous businessmen and television personalities in the world. To demonstrate this supposed absurdity, Putin pointed to the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Russian President Vladimir Putin offers a ball from the 2018 World Cup to President Trump. (Photo: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

“There were over 500 American businessmen, high-ranking ones — I didn’t even remember the last names of each and every one of them,” Putin said. “Do you think that we tried to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? Well, it’s difficult to imagine.”

Putin finished his response by encouraging Lemire and other concerned listeners to simply stop thinking about it: “Well, please just disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore.”

Trump said that if Russia had collected anything, “it would’ve been out long ago” — before changing the subject to former FBI agent Peter Strzok’s testimony before Congress, which he called a “disgrace to the FBI,” a “disgrace to our country” and “a total witch hunt.”

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