At the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a reporter asked Trump, “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?” the reporter said.
He went on to say that no president has been tougher on Russia than he has. “I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media,” Trump told reporters.
Trump’s remarks again appeared to contradict his top advisers on the threat posed by Russia, just one day after he said he accepted the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
More than two hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to quell the latest controversy, saying Trump was saying “no” to whether he would take further questions — not to whether he thinks Russia continues to target the United States.
“I had a chance to speak with the president after his comments, and the president was — 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 in our elections, as they have done in the past, and as we have stated.”
Trump has faced renewed scrutiny this week over his views on the threat posed by Russia in the wake of a summit Monday in Helsinki, where the U.S. president rhetorically embraced Vladimir Putin and appeared to side with the Russian president over U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow’s aggressive election interference.
On Tuesday, he attempted to clarify that he accepts the intelligence community’s conclusions about Moscow’s role in the 2016 campaign but added caveats suggesting that other nations or actors may have been involved. His comments Wednesday morning further muddied his stance.
By late Wednesday, Trump was again addressing the issue, saying in a CBS Evening News interview that he had warned Putin in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki that the United States will not tolerate any further interference by Russia.
“I let him know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Trump said.
He also told CBS that he holds Putin responsible for Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and that he agrees with the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions.
“Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country, just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country,” Trump said when asked whether he holds Putin responsible. “So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
Trump’s comments Wednesday morning set off a new round of criticism from lawmakers in both parties.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a leading Republican foreign policy voice, said he spoke with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Wednesday afternoon about continued Russian efforts to target the United States. He urged Trump to explain the discrepancy between his own statement and Coats’s warning.
“I would ask the president to explain to us why he thinks the intelligence community is wrong about this,” Graham said. “If you’re wrong about this and we don’t act, that’s going to define your presidency.”
Some Democrats cast Trump’s remarks as only the latest worrisome signal of the president’s loyalties.
“Mr. President, it is time to stop taking the word of a KGB agent over that of your own intelligence officials,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said in a statement. “Russia interfered in our 2016 elections. They’re actively trying to do it again. You must wake up to that fact.”
Last week, Coats said that Russia and other countries are continuing to target U.S. 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 during a speech Friday at a Washington think tank.
Coats said 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 and the financial system.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Wednesday, said Russia continues to “engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
Asked in the CBS interview Wednesday whether he agrees with Coats’s assessment, Trump said that he does — a change from an interview with the same network last weekend in which he cast doubt on his intelligence chief’s warnings.
“Well, I’d accept it. I mean, he’s an expert,” Trump said. “This is what he does. He’s been doing a very good job. I have tremendous faith in Daniel Coats. And if he says that, I would accept that. I will tell you, though, it better not be. It better not be.”
But Trump was hesitant to say whether he thinks Putin is lying about Russia’s actions.
“I don’t want to get into whether or not he’s lying. I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted,” he said.
Members of Congress have been working on legislation aimed at deterring interference in U.S. elections.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced a bipartisan bill in January that would mandate sanctions and other punishment for any foreign actor who is found to have attempted to undermine U.S. elections in the future.
“There is no reason to think this meddling will be an isolated incident,” Rubio and Van Hollen wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on the measure in January. “In fact, we expect the threat will grow in future years.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) mentioned the Rubio and Van Hollen bill when speaking with reporters on Tuesday and said it is among the measures the chamber may take up to dissuade Russia from any further attempts at election interference.
“In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018,” McConnell said.
Despite the White House’s efforts to move past the controversy, the issue showed few signs of dying down. Among those chiding Trump has been Fox News Channel, which has been uncharacteristically critical of the president in recent days.
During a Wednesday evening segment about Trump’s latest dust-up, the network ran a chyron reading: “Try, try again: White House and Trump offer different responses on Russia.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.