U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday he would "firmly" ask Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about his country's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that has triggered a U.S. federal investigation Trump claims is a "rigged witch hunt."
"I think it really hurts our country," Trump said at a news conference in Britain after meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May. "It really hurts our relationship with Russia. I think that we would have a chance at a very good relationship with Russia and a very good chance, a very good relationship with President Putin. I would hope so."
Trump said he does not anticipate a "Perry Mason" moment when he confronts Putin on the issue, a reference to a decades-old U.S. television courtroom drama, and he predicted Putin would continue to deny the allegations.
"I don't think you'll have any gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,"' Trump said. He added, "There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think, but you never know what happens, right?"
Just days before the meeting, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russians, alleging Friday they hacked into the Democratic National Committee to undermine the election.
They are the most recent charges in the special counsel probe that already has resulted in guilty pleas from three of Trump's campaign aides.
In tweets from Scotland on Saturday, Trump questioned why the Obama administration did not act, asked about the location of the DNC server that was hacked, and again questioned the integrity of the FBI.
The server was hacked by Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate shortly after then-presidential candidate Trump called on Russian hackers in a July 27, 2016 speech to find emails from Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, the indictment said.
"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," a reference to emails Clinton deleted from a private account she used when she served as secretary of state.
Hours later, Russia's foreign military intelligence agency targeted Clinton's personal office for the first time and launched an effort to access 76 Clinton campaign accounts, according to the indictment.
When asked if he has given Putin the advantage going into the meeting by challenging long-standing Western alliances, Trump said his administration has been "far tougher on Russia than anybody."
"When you look at what we've done in terms of Russia, I guarantee whoever it is in Russia, they're saying 'oh gee, we wish that Trump was not the victor in that election?"
Prime Minister May said Trump is well-positioned as he prepares to meet with Putin, saying, "What is important is that the president goes into this as he is doing from a position of strength and also from a position of unity in NATO."
NATO allied leaders, who Trump met with in Brussels earlier this week, are skeptical about whether he will be firm enough with the Russian leader, who has denied the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered in the election with the intent of helping Trump win.
Trump reiterated Friday that he is not going into the meeting with high expectations, but he said the two leaders would also discuss "a number of things," including cuts to nuclear weapons arsenals. He said the U.S. has been "modernizing and fixing" its nuclear weapons program and added "it's just a devastating technology and they [the Russians] likewise are doing a lot. And it's a very, very bad policy."
Trump has not disclosed details about what nuclear arms control treaties he would propose to Putin, but they may discuss the extension of the "New Start" treaty, a pillar of arms control. They also may discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to try to reduce the possibility of a nuclear rivalry between the world's two largest nuclear powers.
Trump cautioned it was difficult to reach substantive agreements with Putin because his critics would accuse him of being a proponent of Russia.
"We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but it makes it very hard to do something with Russia, because, anything you do, it's like: 'Russia, oh He loves Russia.'"
The two leaders are scheduled to meet Monday in Helsinki. In a letter to the White House Saturday, Senate Democratic leaders urged Trump not to meet with Putin if he is "not prepared to make Russia's attack on our election the top issue you will discuss." The lawmakers also urged Trump to "demand" that the indicted Russian intelligence officials be "handed over to stand trial."
The lawmakers said if Trump insists on the meeting, he should not meet alone with the Russian president.
"Mr. Putin is a trained KGB intelligence veteran who will come to this meeting well prepared. As the Kremlin said last week, a one-on-one meeting with you "absolutely suits him. There must be other Americans in the room," the senators wrote.
The letter was signed by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Bob Menendez, Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed, Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, and Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown.
Finnish National Defense University security policy expert Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo told VOA the Trump-Putin summit will be largely "symbolic."
"It could open up new negotiations on a lower level that could actually achieve something," Raitasalo said. He also said any real progress on issues the leaders discuss "could take time."
"In most cases, a couple of hours between heads of states that haven't seen each other for a time and discussed things properly, you can't achieve much in several hours. But it could be a good start," said Raitasalo.