The president’s flat “no” came in response to a reporter’s question during a White House meeting with the Cabinet. Two hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was only saying “no” to answering any questions, yet the reporter and others refuted her.
“Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?” the reporter asked as a small media group was being ushered out of the room.
“No,” Trump responded, looking directly at the questioner. He went on to say, “We are doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia.”
The president’s apparent denial of an ongoing threat from Russia contradicted his chief intelligence adviser, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who on Friday compared warning signs of cyberattacks by Russia to intelligence rumblings before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has also said that Russia has not been deterred from continuing its campaign of hacking and disinformation that helped scramble the presidential race two years ago.
“We are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself,” he said.
The day after Coats issued his warning, Trump expressed his doubts in an interview with “CBS Evening News.”
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” he said. “I’d have to look.”
The White House did not seek to clarify that remark. But when Trump’s answer on Wednesday immediately spawned a new round of news reports suggesting a president at odds with his intelligence advisers, and partial to Russia, the White House was forced to restart damage control efforts that began after his widely panned performance at a summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday.
After Sanders told reporters at a White House briefing that Trump was not denying that Russia is targeting the United States, but merely ruling out answering any questions, reporters disputed her version.
Cecilia Vega, the ABC reporter who asked the question, said on Twitter, “Getting a lot of questions about my exchange” with Trump. “Yes, he was looking directly at me when he spoke. Yes, I believe he heard me clearly. He answered two of my questions.”
After Trump’s initial response to her, Vega immediately followed by asking, to clarify, “No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”
“No,” Trump replied again, twice.
Similarly, the White House pool report distributed to media outlets broadly said Trump was answering Vega, not indicating that he didn’t want to take questions. “Your pooler stands by that report,” the correspondent wrote in a subsequent pool report, after Sanders’ briefing.
The latest episode threatened to undo Trump’s already tepid efforts to tamp down the bipartisan furor over his performance in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday.
During a joint news conference alongside the Russian president, Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denials over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign. He also declined to publicly warn Putin not to attempt similar tactics in the future, while blaming the United States for bad relations with Moscow.
On Tuesday, after returning to Washington and facing the resulting uproar, Trump partially reversed himself, saying he misspoke and that he meant to say he does believe Russia interfered.
“I have the strongest respect for our intelligence agencies, headed by my people,” he said on Tuesday. Yet he also undercut that statement by immediately suggesting that other parties could be interfering as well, something unsupported by intelligence evidence.
Trump added, “We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018,” when midterm elections that will determine control of Congress will be held.
But his statement on Wednesday cast doubt on whether the president understands the threat and plans to defend against it.
“He is not willing to accept the reality of the threat,” said Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director under President George W. Bush and as head of the National Security Agency under Bush and President Bill Clinton. “He has not issued anything like what the government needs to mount a whole-of-government response to what the Russians are doing.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., tweeted on Wednesday that he believes “the Russians are at it again.”
“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,” he said.
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