Donald Trump cast doubt on whether Russia really meddled in the 2016 presidential election yesterday as it was announced his first summit with Vladimir Putin will happen on July 16 in Helsinki.
The US president tweeted that “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with meddling in our election”, despite US national intelligence figures repeatedly dismissing the Kremlin’s claim.
The comment has added to fears that Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Putin in the Finnish capital could further drive a wedge with European Union allies.
The summit will happen at the end of a visit to Europe that will see Mr Trump visit Brussels for a Nato meeting, London for talks with Theresa May and the Queen and Scotland for golf.
Mrs May is among European leaders clamouring for a tough line on Russia in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year.
However Mr Trump, eager to improve relations with Russia despite the federal investigation into his campaign’s links to the country, has been critical of Nato.
Mr Trump told fellow world leaders at a meeting this month that “Nato is as bad as Nafta”, according to the news website Axios, adding: “It’s much too costly for the US.”
Nafta, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, is a trade agreement between America, Mexico and Canada that Mr Trump has threatened to tear up unless it is renegotiated.
There are fears that Mr Trump could call for the halting of Nato military exercise in Eastern Europe, something that would be a boost for Mr Putin.
The US president made a similar move after meeting Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, when he unexpectedly cancelled American-South Korea “war games” on the Korean Peninsula.
There are also concerns that Mr Trump could refuse to sign a joint communique at the end of the Nato gathering – something he did at the G7 meeting of world leaders this month – and attack allies for not spending more on defence.
The White House and Kremlin announced the Trump-Putin summit in joint statements yesterday. Helsinki held a number of historic Cold War talks in the past.
The pair are yet to hold a formal summit since Mr Trump took office last January, but have met a number of times and talked more than half a dozen times on the phone.
The meeting comes with political risk for Mr Trump given he is under intense scrutiny at home over his election campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin.
Read more | Russia investigation
An investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into Russian election meddling continues to hang over Mr Trump. Yesterday the president claimed Mr Mueller had “conflicts of interest”.
Mr Trump is reportedly prepared to push for Russia’s help in solving the Syria crisis at the meeting in what would be a remarkable change in policy from his predecessor Barack Obama.
Mr Trump hopes Mr Putin will agree to drive Iran out of southern Syria in return for keeping Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, in power, according to a CNN report.
The US president is expected to be in Britain from the evening of July 12 to July 15. Mr Putin will be able to attend the World Cup final in Moscow on July 15 before his meeting with Mr Trump.
Mr Trump said earlier this week: “I think they’re doing a fantastic job with the World Cup right now. It’s in Russia, and I will tell you that it’s exciting. My son loves soccer, and he loves watching the World Cup.
"And they have really done a fantastic job with the World Cup. It’s exciting even if you’re a non-soccer fan. I’m a soccer fan a little bit, but I don’t have much time.”
In a separate development, it emerged the Scottish leg of Mr Trump’s UK visit could see more than 5,000 police officers deployed and cost around £5 million.
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