Confusion lingers on Trump, Russia
WASHINGTON — For the third straight day, President Trump cast doubt on whether he views Russia as a threat, despite warnings from his own government that Moscow continues to target the United States with hostile actions.
Trump triggered a new uproar Wednesday morning when he appeared to suggest that Russia is no longer seeking to interfere in US elections. That prompted the White House to assert hours later that his words had been misconstrued.
At the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a reporter asked Trump, ‘‘Is Russia still targeting the US, Mr. President?’’
‘‘Thank you very much. No,’’ Trump responded, shaking his head.
‘‘No? You don’t believe that to be the case?’’ the reporter said.
‘‘No,’’ Trump repeated.
He went on to say that no president has been tougher on Russia than he has. ‘‘I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media,’’ Trump told reporters.
The remarks again appeared to contradict his top advisers on the threat posed by Russia, just one day after he said he accepted the conclusion of US intelligence officials on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
More than two hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to quell the latest controversy, stating that Trump was saying ‘‘no’’ to whether he would take further questions — not to whether he thinks Russia continues to target the United States.
‘‘I had a chance to speak with the president after his comments, and the president was — said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and was saying ‘no’ to answering questions,’’ Sanders said. ‘‘The president and his administration are working very hard to make sure that . . . Russia is unable to meddle in our elections, as they have done in the past, and as we have stated.’’
Trump has faced renewed scrutiny this week over his views on the threat posed by Russia following a summit Monday in Helsinki, where he rhetorically embraced Vladimir Putin and appeared to support the Russian president on his denial of reports that Moscow aggressively sought to undermine the 2016 election.
On Tuesday, he attempted to clarify that he accepts the intelligence community’s conclusions about Moscow’s role in the 2016 campaign but added caveats suggesting that other nations or actors may have been involved. His comments Wednesday morning further muddied his stance.
By late Wednesday, Trump was again addressing the issue, saying in a CBS Evening News interview that he had warned Putin in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki that the United States will not tolerate any further interference by Russia.
‘‘I let him know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,’’ Trump said.
He also told CBS that he holds Putin responsible for Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and that he agrees with the US intelligence community’s conclusions.
‘‘Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country, just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country,’’ Trump said when asked whether he holds Putin responsible. ‘‘So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.’’
Trump’s comments Wednesday morning set off a new round of criticism from lawmakers in both parties.
Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, a leading Republican foreign policy voice, said he spoke with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Wednesday afternoon about continued Russian efforts to target the United States.
He urged Trump to explain the discrepancy between his own statement and Coats’s warning.
‘‘I would ask the president to explain to us why he thinks the intelligence community is wrong about this,’’ Graham said. ‘‘If you’re wrong about this and we don’t act, that’s going to define your presidency.’’
Some Democrats cast Trump’s remarks as only the latest worrisome signal of the president’s loyalties.
‘‘Mr. President, it is time to stop taking the word of a KGB agent over that of your own intelligence officials,’’ Senate minority leader Charles Schumer of New York said in a statement.
Last week, Coats said that Russia and other countries are continuing to target US businesses, the government, and other institutions, and that ‘‘the warning lights are blinking red.’’
‘‘These actions are persistent. They’re pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,’’ Coats said during a speech Friday.
Coats said the intelligence community continues to see efforts by Russian actors to manipulate US public opinion, including through the use of fake social media accounts. He also sounded the alarm about potential attacks on US infrastructure and the financial system.
Asked in the CBS interview Wednesday whether he agrees with Coats’s assessment, Trump said that he does — a shift from an interview with the same network last weekend in which he cast doubt on his intelligence chief’s warnings.
‘‘Well, I'd accept it. I mean, he’s an expert,’’ Trump said. ‘‘This is what he does. He’s been doing a very good job. I have tremendous faith in Daniel Coats. And if he says that, I would accept that. I will tell you, though, it better not be. It better not be.’’
But Trump was hesitant to say whether he thinks Putin is lying about Russia’s actions.
‘‘I don’t want to get into whether or not he’s lying. I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted,’’ he said.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that before he assumed the presidency, Trump was shown highly classified intelligence on the Russian interference efforts. Those reports indicated Putin had ordered the complex cyberattacks to sway the election.
The evidence included texts and e-mails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Putin, the Times reported.
Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017.
Members of Congress have been working on legislation aimed at deterring interference in US elections.
Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, introduced a bipartisan bill in January that would mandate sanctions and other punishment for any foreign entity found to have attempted to undermine US elections.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, mentioned that bill when speaking with reporters on Tuesday.