HELSINKI—President Donald Trump, standing beside Russian leader Vladimir Putin, questioned the U.S. intelligence conclusion that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election, a move lawmakers of both parties said was a stunning alignment with an adversary.
Mr. Trump said he and the Russian president “spent a great deal of time” discussing the matter during their four hours of talks here on Monday, and said Mr. Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
Asked whom he believed—U.S. intelligence agencies or Mr. Putin—Mr. Trump said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, “came to me [and] said, they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia.”
“I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he added.
Mr. Coats, in a statement following the Helsinki news conference, said: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Mr. Trump spent much of Monday’s news conference attacking his Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, describing the probe into whether his associates colluded with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election as a “disaster for our country” that has undermined U.S. relations with Moscow. And he continued to blame the U.S., at least in part, for the poor state of those relations, saying the U.S. had been “foolish.”
Heading into the summit, the White House had planned for Mr. Trump to “push Putin” at the news conference, one White House official said. The White House thought any confrontational approach from Mr. Trump toward the Russian president would come as a surprise and “make him look good.”
“Obviously, it didn’t happen,” the official said.
Mr. Trump aired his skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings—which he has routinely expressed over the last 18 months—on the heels of Friday’s indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller against 12 Russian officers for allegedly hacking the computers of Democratic organizations and ensuring the pilfered information became public.
Mr. Putin said they discussed the possibility of inviting Mueller investigators to Russia to question the charged officers, but added he would expect the U.S. to offer a reciprocal arrangement. Mr. Trump interjected: “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
After the news conference, Mr. Putin scoffed at efforts to link U.S.-Russia ties to the Mueller investigation.
“It’s quite clear to me that this is used in the internal political struggle, and it’s nothing to be proud of for American democracy, to use such dirty methods in the political rivalry,” he said in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment on Mr. Putin’s offer to have investigators visit Russia. The U.S. has largely ceased cooperation with Russia on pursuing cybercriminals in recent years, as the line between Kremlin-sponsored espionage and routine cybercrime has increasingly blurred in Russia, according to former U.S. officials say.Names of criminal hackers shared by U.S. law enforcement with Moscow would often not be arrested but instead wind up working in close alignment with Russia’s intelligence services, turning the effort to cooperate into a recruitment tool for the Kremlin, those officials said.
The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency on Monday declined to comment on the president’s remarks.
Mr. Trump’s failure to publicly pressure Mr. Putin on election interference drew harsh rebukes from veteran administration officials and lawmakers in both parties.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who often advises the Trump administration, said the president should “clarify” his remarks about the U.S. intelligence community and Mr. Putin. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—-immediately,” he said in a tweet.
“The president’s comments made us look as a nation more like a pushover,” Sen. Bob Corker (R., Ala.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Monday. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the remarks as “disgraceful.” Both lawmakers are frequent critics of Mr. Trump.
Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state in Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, said he anticipated some government officials would resign in the wake of Mr. Trump’s news conference.
“I can’t remember a similar episode from modern American presidential history where, when standing beside the person who was our most dangerous adversary, the president continually refused to say a negative word on any subject,” said Mr. Burns, who also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Mr. Trump’s posture toward the Russian leader “a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries.”
Mr. Putin, during Monday’s news conference, emphasized the leaders’ efforts to work together but sought to tamp down the notion that they held a strong bond. “Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?” Mr. Putin asked. “We do have interests that are common. We are looking for points of contact.”
Mr. Putin was also asked whether he had compromising material on Mr. Trump or his family, a reference to unsubstantiated allegations, which U.S. intelligence agencies shared with the president-elect last year, that the Kremlin possessed such material. Mr. Putin laughed in response but didn’t answer the question.
“When President Trump was in Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow,” he said.
The two leaders sought to present a show of unity at the news conference, offering differing views on few points and speaking only positively about each other. Both leaders at times digressed into discussions of other figures and developments related to the election and related probes: a Democratic National Committee email server, deleted Clinton emails, investment-fund manager William Browder and the “Pakistani gentleman.
“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr. Trump declared. “However, that changed, about four hours ago.” Hours earlier, in a tweet, Mr. Trump blamed the U.S. for the poor state of its relations with Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account on Monday quoted that tweet and wrote: “We agree.”
Asked during the news conference why he blamed the U.S. for the state of the relationship, Mr. Trump said: “I hold both countries responsible.”
“The United States has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish,” he said. “We have both made some mistakes.”
Mr. Putin also struck a collegial tone, declaring the Cold War “a thing of the past” and saying the leaders worked together Monday “to restore an acceptable level of trust.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the talks went “better than super.”
Mr. Trump, in a tweet sent aboard Air Force One as he headed back to Washington, sought to alter the thrust of his comments on the intelligence services. “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people,’” he wrote. “However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”
President Barack Obama sought a reset of U.S.-Russia relations early in his administration. But the situation soured after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which prompted Russia’s expulsion from the former Group of Eight, now the Group of Seven. The U.S. has since heightened sanctions on Moscow and expelled Russian diplomats for interference in the 2016 election and following the poisoning in the U.K. of a former Russian spy and his daughter, an act Western countries say was likely carried out by Moscow.
Ahead of the news conference, the two leaders met one-on-one for more than two hours before being joined by their advisers for another two hours, discussing issues including arms control, Syria and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin came after the U.S. president spent much of last week in tense meetings with longstanding U.S. allies at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit and delivering critical comments about U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’shandling of the Brexit process. He left Brussels affirming the U.S.’s commitment to NATO and later said he apologized to Mrs. May.
Some NATO allies and diplomats expressed concern ahead of the summit that Mr. Trump might make concessions on Crimea and reverse the longstanding U.S. and NATO position that Crimea belongs to Ukraine. The president has made comments in recent months that appear sympathetic to Russia’s position on the annexation.
Asked whether Mr. Trump had done so on Monday, Mr. Putin said the U.S. leader’s stance on Crimea was “well-known” and said the president “continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.”
“Our viewpoint is different,” he said.
President Obama thought that Crooked Hillary was going to win the election, so when he was informed by the FBI about Russian Meddling, he said it couldn’t happen, was no big deal, & did NOTHING about it. When I won it became a big deal and the Rigged Witch Hunt headed by Strzok!
A look at past meetings involving leaders of both nations
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No note-takers were seen in the room with the two leaders ahead of their meeting. Mr. Trump had been reluctant to include a note-taker in the one-on-one meeting because he is wary of leaks, said a foreign official briefed on the plans.
But the lack of note-taker raised concerns among some diplomats and former U.S. officials that there would be no official record of the meeting, posing risks including that the Russians might offer a misleading account of what was discussed. A notepad and pen sat beside Mr. Putin on a small table. No pad was beside Mr. Trump.
—Michael R. Gordon, Peter Nicholas, Vivian Salama and Dustin Volz contributed to this article.
Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com