This post has been updated with the White House's explanation.
President Trump responded to the uproar over his news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin by assuring Americans on Tuesday that he agrees with the evaluations of the U.S. intelligence community.
Then, on Wednesday, he again seemed to dispute one of its most fundamental findings.
Appearing at a Cabinet meeting, Trump was asked whether Russia is still trying to interfere in U.S. elections. He seemed to be trying to bring the event to an end by saying, “Thank you.” But then he said no — three times.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later claimed that Trump's noes were intended to beg off questions rather than respond to the Russia question. But then he continued to answer another question. Video seems to suggest he was responding to the question.
Assuming he was, it would fly completely in the face of what his own administration has been saying — including in recent days. Leading the charge has been Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, whose credibility Trump controversially seemed to compare with Putin's at Monday's news conference.
Here's what Coats and others have said:
- “The warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack. . . . [Russia is the] most aggressive foreign actor, no question. And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy.” — Coats on Friday
- “Frankly, the United States is under attack.” — Coats in February
- “We’re taking steps, but we’re probably not doing enough. . . . [Putin] has clearly come to the conclusion that ‘there’s little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity.' " — Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency
- “Of course. I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that.” — then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who is now secretary of state) in January
- “Cyberattacks Put Russian Fingers on the Switch at Power Plants, U.S. Says” — a New York Times headline from March
It seems likely the White House will have to walk back this one, too — if it doesn't try to argue that he wasn't saying no to that particular question. But the idea that Trump doubts Coats would also track with what he said this weekend.
In an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor taped in Scotland, Trump was asked specifically about Coats's comments that U.S. digital infrastructure was unable to deal with another cyberattack. Trump publicly doubted Coats:
GLOR: Speaking about hacking, the — your D.N.I., Dan Coats, said that America's digital infrastructure's at a critical point right now.
GLOR: Similar to what it was like in — in some ways, before 9/11, and that is, we're susceptible to a, to a large scale attack. Do you agree with that?
TRUMP: Well, I — I don't know if I agree with that. I'd have to look. But I have a lot of respect for Dan. And that's where he is, and that's what he does.
And the idea that he would question these particular conclusions is completely in-character for him. He seems to want to put the whole thing behind him, and the idea that Russia is still interfering in U.S. elections is detrimental to that. He has also assured that he agrees with the intelligence community multiple times before, only to again cast doubt as he did Monday alongside Putin.
Regardless of how many walk backs we see or how many assurances Trump provides, though, it's clear what he believes — or at least, what he wants his supporters to believe. And that's that the intelligence community's conclusions are worth doubting.