HELSINKI - President Donald Trump says he spent a "great deal of time" addressing Russian meddling in the U.S. election during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki but he wouldn't directly criticize his Russian counterpart over the issue.
"During today's meeting I addressed the issue of Russian interference in our elections. I felt this was a message best delivered in person,"Trump told reporters during joint news conference with the Russian leader.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia meddled in the 2016 election,but Putin, in his remarks Monday, said "I had to repeat that the Russian state never interfered, and does not plan to interfere in internal American electoral process.''
When asked who he believes on the issue of election meddling, Trump said he has great confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies but also noted Putin was extremely strong in his denial.
Trump said his overall talks with Putin went well."Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago," he said.
Putin said the talks were held in a frank and business-like manner and called them a success.
Hours earlier, the U.S. president took to social media to cast blame for the state of the American relationship with Moscow.
The Russian ministry of foreign affairs tweeted its response:
Trump had also issued a series of tweets as he headed for Finland, saying no matter how well he does at the summit with Putin he would "return to criticism that it wasn't good enough.:
Asked by reporters to further comment during a Monday morning breakfast with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the Mantyniemi official residence, Trump stuck to the bilateral relationship with Helsinki and last week's meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"NATO was a little bit tough at the beginning and it turned out to be love," replied Trump.
"They're paying and they're paying more rapidly and I think NATO has never been stronger than it is today," said Trump referring to defense spending commitments tied to a minimum percentage of the gross domestic product of the alliance's member states.
Finland, is part of the EU but not a full member of the NATO defense pact.
Several thousand protesters gathered Sunday in Helsinki's iconic Senate Square for a protest that gathered together activists focused on issues including the environment, refugee rights, and anti-war causes.
Some of protest signs read: “Dictators not welcome,” “Trump is Satan to the environment,” and “Stop Killing Journalists.”
Additional protests were expected Monday.
Ahead of his summit with Putin, Trump both lowered expectations for the talks and issued a stunning rebuke of what has traditionally been one of Washington's closest allies.
"Well I think we have a lot of foes," Trump told CBS News. "I think the European Union is a foe. Now you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe."Trump also said Russia is a foe "in certain respects."
European Council President Donald Tusk quickly responded on Twitter: "America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news."
Trump's comments were broadcast as he headed for Helsinki. Trump said he will use the meeting to find areas of cooperation with Putin, who is also critical of Western institutions such as NATO and the EU.
"Nothing bad's gonna come out of it, and maybe some good will come out," Trump said. "But I go in with low expectations. I'm not going with high expectations. I don't really, I can't tell you what's going to happen."
The Trump and Putin meeting comes three days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of meddling in election to help Trump win the White House.
Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States, so it is unlikely that the Russia would turn the intelligence officials over to the U.S. to stand trial. Putin has denied trying to influence the vote.
The fresh indictments prompted a number of U.S. senators, all but one Democrats, to request Trump cancel his summit with Putin.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, speaking to VOA's Russian Service in Helsinki said his greatest fear is that Trump "will be too friendly and lavish praise on Vladimir Putin and I think that serves his interest. I don't think that serves America's interest.
During his Europe tour, Trump has been combative with traditional U.S. allies at every stagebeginning at a NATO summit in Brussels, where he chastised European leaders for not spending more on defense.