(Photos: AP, Getty and Washington Post; illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/Post)
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an unprecedented assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House. Interviews with more than 50 U.S. officials show that the personal insecurities of the president have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat, with Trump resisting or attempting to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account as he tries to forge a partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Told that members of his incoming Cabinet had already publicly backed the intelligence report on Russian election meddling, President-elect Trump shot back, “So what?” Admitting that the Kremlin had hacked Democratic Party emails, he said, was a “trap.”
Grudging pronouncement, immediate regret
On Jan. 11, Trump came as close as he ever would to acknowledging that Russia had influenced his win. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said. But Trump regretted the words almost immediately. “It’s not me,” he said to aides afterward. “It wasn’t right.”
‘More than worth the effort’
U.S. officials said the Kremlin believes it got a staggering return on an operation that by some estimates cost less than $500,000 to execute and was organized around two main objectives — destabilizing U.S. democracy and preventing Hillary Clinton, who is despised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, from reaching the White House.
‘The last administration had it exactly backwards’
Trump administration officials defend the approach with Russia, insisting that their policies and actions have been tougher than those pursued by President Barack Obama. “Our approach is that we don’t irritate Russia, we deter Russia,” a senior administration official said.
An informal offer to the Kremlin
With Trump’s apparent approval, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated plans to return two Russian compounds in the United States that the Obama administration seized in retaliation for Moscow’s election meddling. A senior administration official said Tillerson later sweetened the deal, offering to return one with full diplomatic privileges. State Department officials disputed that account, saying that no such offer was ever contemplated.
‘He was raging. He was raging mad.’
Even before Trump was sworn in, a group of senators had begun drafting legislation to impose further sanctions on Russia. Trump saw the bill as validation of the case that Russia had interfered and a potentially fatal blow to his aspirations for friendship with Putin. When it passed 98 to 2, Trump was “apoplectic,” an adviser recalled. It took four days for aides to persuade him to sign the bill.
An aversion to intelligence reports, a dilemma for spies
Current and former officials said that Trump’s intelligence update — known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB — is often structured to avoid upsetting him. “If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the PDB off the rails,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
‘A good relationship with Russia is a good thing’
Some officials close to Trump explain his aversion to the intelligence findings in more psychological terms. The president sees the Russia inquiry as a conspiracy to undermine his election accomplishment — “a witch hunt,” as he often calls it. “If you say ‘Russian interference,’ to him it’s all about him,” one said. “He judges everything as about him.”
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