President minimizes allegations of hacking
White House wants to “move forward ... with Russia”
WASHINGTON» President Donald Trump on Sunday sought to move past allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, effectively dismissing the importance of the intelligence community’s definitive conclusion about a foreign adversary in pursuit of a collaborative partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Issuing his first public comments since sitting down with Putin in Germany, Trump vowed to “move forward in working constructively with Russia,” and said the two leaders were forming a cybersecurity unit to protect against the kinds of illegal intrusions that U.S. intelligence agencies say Putin ordered in the United States.
After Putin denied any such election interference in his meeting with Trump, the U.S. president tried to turn the page altogether on the issue of Russian hacking. As Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III investigates Russian interference and possible collusion with Trump campaign officials, Trump has repeatedly labeled the issue a “hoax” and has portrayed it as a dark cloud unfairly hanging over his first six months as president.
Trump’s pledge to partner with Putin drew swift and stern denunciations from Democratic and Republican officials, who cast the U.S. president as dangerously naive for trusting his Russian counterpart and said Russia must be forced to pay a price for its election interference.
Trump said he “strongly pressed” Putin twice about Russian meddling and that Putin “vehemently denied it.” Trump did not say whether he accepted Putin’s denial, saying only, “I’ve already given my opinion.”
Trump delivered his account of the meeting with Putin, held last Friday on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, via a series of defiant tweets fired off Sunday morning from the White House, just before visiting his Northern Virginia golf course — as opposed to a news conference like the one Putin held with journalists on Saturday.
Putin, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said that Trump believed Putin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the election. “It seemed to me that he took it into account, and agreed,” Putin told reporters on Saturday, though he added, “you should ask him.”
Initially, U.S. officials traveling with Trump would not dispute Putin and Lavrov’s accounts when asked by reporters. On Sunday, however, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who remained in Washington during the trip, rejected the Russian characterization.
“It’s not true,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president absolutely did not believe the denial of President Putin.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded definitively that Russian authorities tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor with illegal hacking and propaganda and other activities.
Trump’s public comments on the issue have been far less definitive, varying widely from tepid acknowledgment to outright doubt about Russia’s role. Under questioning from Fox host Chris Wallace, Priebus also showed varying degrees of certainty about whether Trump believes Russia meddled in the election.
“He said they probably meddled in the election. They did meddle in the election,” Priebus said, seeming to grow more definitive. But then Priebus seemed to back off: “Yes, he believes that Russia probably committed all of these acts that we’ve been told of. But he also believes that other countries also participated in this activity.”
Trump on Sunday revealed his continued fixation with some aspects of the Russia issue. He falsely accused former President Barack Obama of doing “NOTHING” after learning of the Russian hacking before the election. In fact, on Oct. 7, about a month before the election, the Obama administration formally and publicly blamed Russia for the hacking, though some Obama administration officials have since said they regret not responding more.
John Brennan, who served as CIA director under Obama and ran the agency’s response to Russia’s election interference, chastised Trump on Sunday for repeatedly casting doubt on the conclusions of the intelligence community, including at a news conference last week in Poland.
“I seriously question whether or not Mr. Putin heard from Mr. Trump what he needed to about the assault on our democratic institutions,” Brennan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”