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Trump, Putin Hail 'First Steps' Toward Mending U.S.-Russian Ties

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin react at the end of their joint news conference after their summit in Helsinki on July 16.

Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say they took the "first steps" toward mending badly strained ties between the United States and Russia at their first summit since Trump took office 18 months ago.

Putin called the July 16 talks in Helsinki "very successful and useful" and said he and Trump discussed arms control, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, trade, and other issues.

At a joint press conference after more than four hours of talks, Putin said that Trump brought up the issue of Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 election that put the U.S. president in office, and again repeated his denial that Moscow interfered. In response to a reporter's question, he said he had wanted Trump to win because the Republican nominee had expressed a desire to improve relations with Moscow.

Trump said that he addressed Putin "directly" about the allegations of meddling and that they spent a "great deal of time" talking about it, but did not provide details or indicate that there was any specific outcome of that discussion. Pressed by a reporter, Trump said that Putin was "strong and powerful in his denial."

Trump repeated his denial that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia and said the U.S. investigations into the matter have done serious damage.

The U.S. president came under additional pressure to challenge Putin on the alleged meddling -- or to call off the summit altogether -- after the U.S. Justice Department announced on July 13 that a grand jury has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers over hacking into the U.S. Democratic Party and leaking stolen e-mails and other information during the presidential campaign.

Trump defended his decision to meet with Putin, saying that "diplomacy" is crucial and that "productive dialogue" with Moscow is good for the United States, Russia, and the rest of the world.

Both presidents expressed a desire for talks on arms control. Putin said that it is important to start a dialogue on nuclear weapons and that he made concrete proposals in this area. He also said Russia and the United States should hold talks on extending the 2010 New START treaty, which put new limits on the size of the two countries' nuclear arsenals.

Earlier, in remarks to reporters before the start of one-on-one talks, Trump predicted the United States and Russia will "end up having an extraordinary relationship" and emphasized that he believes "getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing."

"I really think the world wants to see us get along," Trump said, adding that he believes Russia and the United States have "great opportunities" to cooperate.

WATCH: Security incident moments before Trump/Putin press conference:

Man Bundled Away From Trump-Putin Briefing
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Both Trump and Putin, who has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999, have made clear that they want to ease severe strains in relations between the two countries.

Ties have been badly frayed by tensions over issues including Russia's takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its role in the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, and what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a campaign ordered by Putin to interfere in the 2016 presidential election that Trump won.

Trump said he and Putin have "a lot of good things to talk about and a lot of things to talk about," adding that discussions would touch on issues ranging from "trade to military to missiles to nuclear" and China, among others.

He suggested he hopes a deal to reduce the former Cold War superpowers' nuclear arsenals can eventually be reached, saying Russia and the United States possess about 90 percent of the world's nuclear arms.

"Hopefully we can do something about that," said Trump, who leaned forward in his chair and at one point winked at Putin, who sat slouched back a bit -- a familiar pose for the Russian president.

Trump Hopes To 'Do Something' About Nuclear Arms With Putin
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Putin, who spoke first, emphasized that he and Trump have spoken several times by phone and on the sidelines of international gatherings.

"But of course, the time has come to speak comprehensively about our bilateral relations and various sore points in the world -- there are quite a lot of them," he said.

In the opening remarks, Trump did not mention the conflict in Syria, Russia's seizure of Crimea, or Moscow's alleged meddling in the U.S. election.

'Malign' Activity

That was likely to deepen concerns among Democrats and critics of Trump who fear that he will not press Putin hard on what officials in his own administration have described as "malign" activity around the globe.

"President Trump made clear that he continues to confuse a good relationship with Putin with a good relationship between our two countries," former NATO Deputy Secretary-General and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told CNN on July 16. "It looks like he is going to give the Russians a pass on the invasion of Crimea, on the interference in our election, on the aggressive stance they've pursued in Syria. So I worry that we are going to come out at the short end."

Many analysts have said the meeting itself is a win for Putin, who they say is eager to show that Russia is dealing with the United States on an equal footing and is not isolated despite sanctions and widespread condemnation over its actions abroad since the takeover of Crimea in 2014.

Putin's plane touched down at the Helsinki airport some 30 minutes or more behind schedule, pushing the start of the one-on-one meeting back by nearly an hour. Trump arrived in Helsinki on July 15 after a July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to Britain.

'U.S. Foolishness'

Hours before the summit, Trump blamed Washington's troubled relations with Moscow on U.S. investigations into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and into whether his campaign colluded with Russia. Putin denies the accusations of interference, and Trump says there was no collusion.

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!" Trump tweeted, referring to U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, which has accused Trump's domestic opponents and the U.S. establishment of thwarting efforts to improve relations, liked Trump's tweet and responded: "We agree."

The two presidents shakes hands in Helsinki.
The two presidents shakes hands in Helsinki.

Trump's tweet drew fire from Democrats in the United States. "Our relationship with Russia is strained because of the very malign actions he's refusing to take Russia to task for," Democratic U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.

The summit was being closely watched around the world to see whether Trump -- who has praised Putin in the past -- would press him on issues such as the alleged election meddling and the takeover of Crimea, or would go easy on him in the hope of improving the troubled relationship.

Trump said last week that his administration has been "extremely tough" on Russia. He signed on to a July 12 joint statement from the leaders of NATO member countries that said Russia's policies "have reduced stability and security" and accused Moscow of "challenging Euro-Atlantic security and stability through hybrid actions, including attempted interference in the election processes...widespread disinformation campaigns, and malicious cyberactivities."

Trump also said at the breakfast meeting that "NATO's never been stronger" and "NATO has never been more together" after the summit in Brussels, where he said alliance members agreed to speed up increasing their defense spending following criticism he made at the meeting.

'No Clear Agenda'

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia's RT TV station ahead of the summit that Moscow did not expect an easy meeting.

"Of course Syria will be discussed by the two presidents," said Peskov. "We all know what Washington thinks of Iran. But at the same time Iran is a good partner to us in terms of trade, economic cooperation, and political dialogue. So this will not be an easy exchange of views."

Russia hoped, however, that the summit would be "the first step" in overcoming a crisis in relations, he said.

"Presidents Trump and Putin respect each other and they get along well," added Peskov. "There is no clear agenda. It will be determined by the heads of state themselves as they go along."

The summit was taking place in the shadow of a deeply divided political environment in the United States, where Mueller is heading an investigation into possibly illegal contacts between Russian agents and figures in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

On July 13, the U.S. Justice Department said a grand jury had charged 12 Russian intelligence officers for their alleged roles in hacking into the U.S. Democratic party and leaking stolen e-mails and other information during the presidential campaign.

The White House on July 14 rejected calls from leading members of Congress to cancel the meeting with Putin in the wake of the indictments, which have increased domestic pressure on Trump to take a tough stance with Putin on the alleged meddling.

Both sides have been cautious about raising expectations for the Helsinki meeting.

Speaking in Brussels on July 12 following the NATO summit, Trump said he hoped the Helsinki talks would improve relations but stressed it would be "just a loose meeting."

"We go into that meeting not looking for so much," Trump said. He also said he views Putin as a "competitor" rather than as a friend or enemy.

Putin Comments On North Korea, Iran
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With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, Rossia-24, and Sky News