President Donald Trump tore up his diplomatic script this weekend in favor of an angrier, more familiar role after his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an economic summit were limited to hallway conversations lasting little more than five minutes.
The combative commander in chief re-emerged Saturday and Sunday irked that his promised thaw with Russia has been slowed by parallel investigations into Moscow's 2016 election meddling
. Yet his continued vacillations on whether Russia interfered
in last year's election have only clouded the matter further, thwarting the type of substantive cooperation he's seeking.
Traveling through Asia this week, Trump's top aides insisted the meddling must be addressed if the two leaders met. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Beijing that the long list of topics up for discussion with Putin included the cyber-intrusion.
Trump, however, appeared ready to move on. He told reporters as he jetted here from the seaside Vietnamese resort in Da Nang that he accepted the Russian President's denials as sincere and stressed how insulted Putin feels when the issue is raised.
It's a conundrum Trump faces as investigators in Washington inch closer to his inner circle in their Russia probe. Deeply sensitive at the implication the Russian intrusion makes him appear illegitimate, Trump has been unable so far to say definitively whether Putin and his government was behind it.
The unanswered question has left the matter unresolved -- and largely forestalled the type of substantive deliberations that Trump himself maintains are essential.
"I want to be able -- because I think it's very important -- to get along with Russia, to get along with China, to get along with Vietnam, to get along with lots of countries, because we have a lot of things we have to solve," Trump said during a news conference here on Sunday. "I feel that having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability."
Standing in blue silk shirts provided by their hosts, Trump and Putin shook hands in Da Nang but never sat down for formal talks in Vietnam about Syria or North Korea -- two areas Trump has said repeatedly require Russian cooperation.
The prospects for a bilateral meeting were dampened by many factors, including disagreements over Russia's role in fueling the bloody Syrian civil war. But the issue of election meddling loomed as the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller proceeds apace.
The week before Trump departed on his diplomatic tour of Asia, three of Trump's former campaign aides were caught up in the probe -- two were indicted on the Monday ahead of Trump's departure and a third pleaded guilty and was revealed to be cooperating with investigators.
Book-ending Trump's trip jetting between Asian capitals, aides have been speaking with Mueller's team. Top policy adviser Stephen Miller -- who is traveling with the President in Asia -- spoke with Mueller before he departed. Hope Hicks, another aide on the road with Trump, is due to speak with Mueller when she returns.
As Trump departed Da Nang without meeting Putin, he fumed to reporters aboard Air Force One that intelligence officials from the last administration were "political hacks" and labeled the Russia investigation a "hit job" masterminded by Democrats.
Waking up in Hanoi, he unleashed a stream of invective on Twitter after remaining largely calm on social media all week, calling those who question his ties to Russia "haters and fools."
The response back in Washington was heated. Sen. John McCain, who was imprisoned during the Vietnam War less than a mile from where Trump was staying, wrote: "Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk."
No direct answer
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