By Michael Hernandez and Elena Teslova
President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday hailed progress in improving strained bilateral relations as the rivals grapple with how to address a host of major international issues.
The leaders met for roughly two hours behind closed doors during their summit in Helsinki, Finland in a one-on-one sit-down originally planned for an hour and a half.
"Our relationship has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Putin after a working lunch with senior Russian and American officials. “We should have had this dialogue a long time ago.”
Putin, whose late arrival off-set the original start time, said there is "no solid reason" behind the tensions.
"Today's talks reflected our joint desire with President Trump to rectify the negative situation in bilateral relations, to outline the first steps to improve them, restore an acceptable level of trust and return to cooperation at the previous level on all issues of mutual interest,” Putin said in remarks translated from Russian.
Trump earlier Monday faulted "U.S. foolishness and stupidity" for the deteriorated ties in a series of pre-meeting tweets. The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to retweet the message with a brief comment of its own.
"We agree," the ministry said.
During their meeting, Putin and Trump discussed a host of issues, including Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, nuclear non-proliferation and Syria.
Trump said greater cooperation between Moscow and Washington "has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives" in the Syrian conflict, stressing that he and Putin have resolved to do so.
"I think that both of us would be very interested in doing that. And we will do that,” he said.
The U.S. and Russia have been on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, with Moscow being the main supporter of the Syrian regime on the battlefield and in the international community.
Prior to the summit, both leaders had only met on the sidelines of major international gatherings, increasing the importance of the full-scale bilateral meeting.
Trump said he used the opportunity to ask Putin about what U.S. intelligence officials have described as Moscow's sweeping campaign to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump, saying Putin continues to deny any role in the effort.
"I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said. "He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Trump was referring to the 12 alleged members of Russia's main intelligence directorate, the GRU, who were indicted last Friday by a U.S. grand jury on charges related to a hacking campaign that targeted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The charges are the latest to come from Special Council Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation, which Trump has repeatedly fumed about, and which he continued to lash out at Monday.
“The probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated,” Trump said, adding "it’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”
Putin acknowledged that he sympathized with Trump's campaign because the then-Republican candidate spoke of improving ties with Russia, but continued to deny any involvement in the election.
"President Trump as a nominee spoke about the need to restore Russian-American relations. Naturally, there was sympathy in Russian society for this candidate. And different people could show this sympathy. Isn't it natural to have sympathy for a person who wants to build relations with our country?," he said.
Putin further thanked Trump for his praise for hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and presented him with one of the tournament's official Telstar balls, which Trump said he would give to his son, Barron.