President Trump said on Wednesday that Russia is not currently targeting U.S. elections, contradicting his own director of national intelligence’s warning that the Kremlin is planning another cyberattack on the United States.
Before a Cabinet meeting at the White House, Trump was asked by a reporter if Moscow is “still targeting the United States” and its elections. The president shook his head and said “no.”
At a separate press briefing more than two hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders claimed the president “was saying ‘no’ to answering questions” — and not responding to the question itself.
“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,” Sanders said, noting that she had spoken with Trump after the Cabinet meeting.
“Does he believe it’s going on?” CBS News’ chief White House correspondent Major Garrett asked Sanders.
“Well, since there’s currently not an election today, not specifically,” Sanders replied. “But we certainly believe we are taking steps so they can’t do it again.”
But when pressed by reporters at the briefing, Sanders said she was “interpreting what the president said.”
“I was in the room as well, and I didn’t take it the way you did,” she said.
Last week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that Russian attempts to undermine American democracy are ongoing and “aggressive,” and that the United States “is literally under attack.”
“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 Friday. “The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. And it is why I believe we are at a critical point.”
Coats’s dire assessment came the same day Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials in connection with the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer server and subsequent leaking of emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair. These were the latest charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.
“We are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and in voter databases that we experienced,” Coats added. “However, we realize we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.”
Trump’s contradictory assertion at the Cabinet meeting came two days after a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump stunned observers by saying he doesn’t believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, appearing to side with Putin over the conclusions of his own intelligence officials.
“He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
The comments ignited a firestorm of bipartisan criticism, with many members of Trump’s own party issuing scathing statements condemning his embrace of Putin. And Coats released his own statement rebutting Trump.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said. “And we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
At the White House on Tuesday, Trump claimed that he misspoke. “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’” the president explained while reading from prepared remarks. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative. So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good.”
The walk-back came 28 hours after his initial comment in Helsinki and following two interviews with Fox News in which Trump never mentioned that he had meant the opposite of what he said at the summit.
Seated next to Trump at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in February testified before Congress alongside Coats and four other heads of top U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian interference had not diminished since the 2016 presidential race and is continuing in advance of this year’s midterms.
During the Feb. 13 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Pompeo — then the CIA director — Coats and the leaders of the FBI, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency were asked to reaffirm their view that Moscow’s election meddling has continued since Trump’s election. They did so unanimously.
At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Trump dismissed bipartisan critics who say he’s been too soft on Putin.
“There’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia,” he said.
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