President Donald Trump defended his statements after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, crediting himself with diffusing tension between the two nations while praising his counterpart as “very, very strong.”
Trump sat down with Fox News host Sean Hannity for a softball interview following the summit in Helsinki. The president said he made great progress with Putin during their private meeting of more than two hours that day, but he said the Russian leader told him it was a “shame” that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into 2016 campaign interference had driven a wedge between the two countries.
“Maybe we just knocked down that wedge, but it has driven a wedge, and President Putin said that,” Trump told Hannity. “One of the early things he said when we started was: ‘It’s really a shame, because we could do so much good.’ And they drove a phony wedge. It’s a phony witch hunt.”
“It’s a sad thing,” Trump continued. “It’s a very sad thing for our country to see this.”
Trump was excoriated on both sides of the aisle Monday for his remarks after his private talk with Putin in which he challenged the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 election. It came just three days after 12 Russian intelligence officials were indicted in the U.S. for cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
“I think we’ve all been foolish. I think we’re all to blame,” the president, standing next to Putin, said during the news conference. He later noted that he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia doing the hacking, noting that “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Putin repeated those denials in a Fox News interview with anchor Chris Wallace, calling allegations of election interference “utterly ridiculous.”
“Do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of Americans?” Putin asked through a translator. “I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs including election process.”
Speaking with Hannity on Monday, Trump said that America was “doing really well with Russia as of today.”
“I thought we were doing horribly before today,” the president said. “I think we had a potential problem. …We’ve had a phony witch hunt deal drive us apart. It’s the thing that he told me, he said: ‘What a shame.’ He felt it was very hard for me to make a deal because of all this nonsense.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.