ASPEN, Colo. — National security leaders who gathered for an annual conference in this mountain retreat were left stunned and disoriented by President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. The spectacle of an American president embracing an adversary, and Trump’s subsequent equivocations on whether he believes his own intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign, cast a pall over a traditionally sober gathering that strives to find practical solutions to the country’s dilemmas.
“It has been an extraordinary week — and it’s only Wednesday,” said Clark Ervin, the director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program, in welcoming remarks to the several hundred attendees.
Ervin seemed to capture the sentiment of many bewildered guests, who include former Cabinet secretaries and senior leaders of national security agencies, when he said that seven decades of norms and alliances had been “upended” by recent events.
Trump administration officials speaking at the conference were asked one after another what they thought of the president’s behavior in Helsinki on Monday, his clashes with NATO allies last week, or whether they agreed with the unanimous intelligence finding on Russian interference.
One question posed early to every senior official who addressed the conference: Have you ever considered resigning, before or after Trump stood on a podium with Putin and said he had “confidence” in the Russian leader. Some said no, and some left the question open.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was asked about reports that he had threatened to quit after members of Congress demanded access to information about a classified human source in the Russia probe — and the White House didn’t rush to the FBI’s defense.
“I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll just leave it at that,” Wray said during an interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt.
Publicly, administration officials were careful not to criticize the president. But even one of Trump’s most reliable defenders, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, declined to call the Helsinki meeting a success.
“I think it’s important to have that engagement,” she said in an interview with NBC’s Peter Alexander. She added that it was “too early to tell, was it a good” meeting.
Privately, officials acknowledged that Trump’s performance in Helsinki had been a calamity, but they spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to run afoul of the White House.
One senior official said that Trump’s assertion, before a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, that Russia was no longer attacking the United States had put him at odds with remarks by his director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats. Coats said last Friday that “the warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Indeed, Wray and Nielsen have said in their Aspen remarks that Russia did attack the United States and is continuing to interfere in domestic political affairs. (During rounds of questions by three journalists, Nielsen acknowledged that she agreed with all aspects of the intelligence community’s findings, “full stop,” which includes the assessment that Russia’s cybercampaign was designed to help Trump get elected.)
But what to make of Trump’s prevarications over Russia’s involvement was the question that hung in the air here, largely unanswered.
One senior official said that Trump’s praise of Putin, and his ensuing attempts to claim that he really did believe the intelligence agencies, had again occasioned a conversation among colleagues about whether the time had come to leave the administration.
The president’s remarks were indefensible, this official said. But for those in the senior ranks, leaving raised a potentially more troubling questing: Who would take their place, and would those people enable the president’s instincts rather than try to hold the line against them, as this official said he and his colleagues tried to do every day?
Administration officials sought to avoid direct conflict with the president. Instead, they affirmed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and that it was trying to stoke divisions before the midterm elections.
Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Jeanette Manfra said, during a panel discussion, that she had been asleep during Trump’s joint press conference with Putin, and she was not eager to review his performance.
She noted that Trump did say, after the Helsinki meeting, that he agreed with the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russia. Then she pivoted to buttress Coats’s warning, telling attendees that hostile actors were attempting to penetrate critical U.S. systems.
Wray delivered some of the most forceful condemnations of Russia.
“We haven’t seen an effort to target specific election infrastructure at this time,” he said. But Russia “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
Those operations, he said, “are very active, and we could be just a moment away from going to the next level. So, to me, it’s a threat we need to take very seriously and respond to with fierce determination.”