Trump remark sparks another uproar
U.S. President Donald Trump sparked a new uproar over his outreach toward President Vladimir Putin Wednesday by appearing to suggest that Russia is no longer targeting U.S. elections — prompting the White House to assert hours later that Trump’s words had been misconstrued.
At the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a reporter asked, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”
“Thank you very much. No,” Trump responded, shaking his head.
“No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”
“No,” Trump repeated before the questioner concluded.
Trump went on to claim that no president has been tougher on Russia than him. “I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media,” he said.
Several hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was saying “no” to whether he would take further questions from reporters — not to whether he believed Russia continued to target the U.S. with hostile actions.
“The president 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 as they have done in the past.”
She added: “Certainly, like I just said, we believe that the threat still exists, which is why we are taking steps to prevent it.”
Trump’s remarks again put him in the position of appearing to contradict his top advisers on the threat posed by Russia, just one day after saying he accepted the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
The comments also set off a new round of criticism from lawmakers in both parties who have widely condemned Trump in the wake of a Monday summit in Helsinki, where the U.S. president warmly embraced Putin and appeared to side with the Russian president over U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow’s aggressive interference efforts.
Last week, National Intelligence director Daniel Coats said Russia and other countries are continuing to target American 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 in a speech at a Washington think tank.
In his remarks, Coats said that the intelligence community continues to see efforts by Russian actors to manipulate U.S. public opinion, including through the use of fake social media accounts. He also sounded the alarm about potential attacks on U.S. infrastructure or the financial system.
The Homeland Security Department and FBI “in coordination with international partners — have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors,” Coats said.
On Monday, Coats referred in a statement to “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy” by Russia.
Democrats — and some Republicans — immediately took aim at Trump’s remarks, made at the top of a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday.
Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said on Twitter that there is a “BIG discrepancy” between Trump’s statement and warning by Coats.
“It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections,” Graham said. “My personal view: the Russians are at it again.”
Trump faced withering criticism earlier this week after he seemed to side with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community over Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Tuesday, Trump sought to contain the damage by delivering a statement in which he said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but also added that there “could be other people also.”
In a subsequent tweet Wednesday, Trump claimed that a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels last week was an “acknowledged triumph” and that his summit with Putin “may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success.”
Trump said that Russia agreed to help with North Korea and claimed that the “process is moving along.”
“Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!” Trump wrote.
Trump returned to the subject of his relationship with Putin later Wednesday morning, asserting that some people would rather go to war than see him get along well with Putin.
Trump tweeted “Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!”
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” Trump also tweeted.
He added: “We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match.”