President Donald Trump said he briefly discussed special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, but didn’t warn his Russian counterpart to not meddle in the next US election.
“We didn’t discuss that. Really, we didn’t discuss it. We discussed five or six things. We also went into great detail on various things,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after the phone call, which occurred on Friday morning.
Earlier, Trump tweeted he’d discussed the “Russian hoax” with Putin, along with other issues, during their hour-long phone call.
In the Oval Office, Trump said “(Putin) sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started up as a mountain and ended up as a mouse. But he knew that because he knew that there was no collusion. Pretty much that’s what it was.”
Friday’s phone call was the first between the two leaders since the release of the Mueller report, which found that members of the Trump campaign expected they would benefit from Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, but didn’t find that they conspired with the Kremlin.
On Saturday, the President in a tweet doubled down on what he called a “very good call” with Putin, knocking news coverage of Mueller’s investigation.
“Tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia, despite what you read and see in the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote. “Look how they have misled you on ‘Russia Collusion.’ The World can be a better and safer place. Nice!”
Trump, who has repeatedly undercut US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia influenced the 2016 election, claimed earlier this week that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, “did nothing” to stop Russian interference, though in fact Obama told Putin “to cut it out” and vowed “serious consequences.”
Intelligence officials believe that Russian interference in US public affairs continues. But efforts to focus the administration’s efforts in countering that meddling have been met with resistance from the President, who has viewed any suggestion that Russia helped him win the election as a challenge to his legitimacy.
According to the Mueller report, “[T]he investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” The Mueller report also details Russia’s efforts at interference during the 2016 election, which led to charges against several Russians and Russian entities.
The Kremlin said the phone call was initiated by Trump. In a readout, Moscow did not mention the Mueller investigation and said Trump and Putin discussed “the current state and prospects for bilateral relations with an emphasis on economic cooperation.”
Speaking to reporters earlier Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Mueller report was discussed “very, very briefly.”
She would not directly answer questions from reporters on whether Russian interference, as shown in the Mueller report, was discussed between Trump and Putin, only saying, “the conversation on that part was very quick, but what I can tell you is that this administration, unlike the previous one, takes election meddling seriously. And we’re going to do everything that we can to prevent it from happening. That’s why we’ve taken a whole-of-government approach.”
Dive deep into the Mueller report
Pressed about Trump’s decision not to bring up election meddling with Putin during Friday’s call, Sanders later said, “The President’s made clear to everybody, every person that’s not an American voter has no business in our elections. We’ve said it a lot and we’re actually doing things to prevent everybody from meddling in our elections, something the other (Obama) administration failed to do.”
Call focused on Venezuela, Sanders says
Friday’s conversation was part of a larger discussion that was focused on the crisis in Venezuela and also touched on North Korea, a potential nuclear deal with Russia and China, and the situation in Ukraine.
Sanders said the call’s “primary focus” was about the need to help people in Venezuela.
“The President’s primary focus throughout the call was about helping the people of Venezuela, making it clear that the United States stands with the people of Venezuela and the importance of making sure those individuals are able to get the food and the water and the medical supplies that is needed,” Sanders said. “The President reiterated that sentiment several times throughout the call.”
The US and Russia have clashed over the uprisings in the South American nation, with Russia boosting embattled President Nicholas Maduro and the US and other western nations supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Maduro was preparing to flee the country before being talked out of it by Russia, which Moscow has denied.
However, despite Pompeo’s claims about Russia’s involvement, Trump told press in the Oval Office Friday afternoon that Putin relayed that Russia “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
Asked by CNN’s Sarah Westwood whether there was daylight between Pompeo and Trump over the issue, Sanders said Friday afternoon, “The President was relaying what President Putin said to him. That’s it.”
Sanders, earlier Friday, was also asked about whether the President made any progress on getting Putin to back off his support of Maduro.
“The President reiterated the need for a peaceful transition and his focus throughout the conversation was on the need to help the people and make sure that the aid was actually getting to them and being delivered,” she replied.
Sanders offered few details on Friday’s Pentagon meeting on Venezuela with Trump’s national security team, noting, “The President is continuing to push for aid to be delivered to those people” and that Trump “is going to do what is required if necessary.”
In the Kremlin’s readout, Putin warned Trump against “outside interference” in Venezuelan affairs, saying such efforts would “undermine the prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”
On North Korea, Sanders said the two spoke about North Korea “a good bit of time on the call and reiterated both the commitment and need for denuclearization.” She said Trump told Putin about the “importance of Russia stepping up” in North Korea. The Kremlin said Putin called on Trump to reduce sanctions against the reclusive regime.
Sanders was asked if Putin had a message from Kim to give to Trump, but she did not answer.
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Mary Ilyushina and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.