WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday denied Russia is still targeting the United States, a claim sharply at odds with recent warnings from his top intelligence chief about ongoing threats to election security.
Trump was asked at the end of a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still targeting the U.S. and answered “no” without elaborating. His response followed words of alarm last week from National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, who said warning lights about overall cyberthreats to the U.S. were “blinking red” — much as “blinking red” signals before the 9/11 terror attacks.
In the aftermath of his Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump asserted that no other American president has been as “tough” on Russia as he has been. He cited U.S. sanctions on Russia and the expulsion of alleged Russian spies from the U.S., telling reporters that Putin “understands it, and he’s not happy about it.”
Coats said last week that Russia has been the most aggressive cyberthreat but other efforts are coming from China, Iran and North Korea as well as criminal networks and individual hackers.
Trump’s comments came a day after he walked back his public questioning of U.S. intelligence findings of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Those previous comments, delivered alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit press conference Monday, had prompted blistering, bipartisan criticism at home.
Trump took to Twitter early Wednesday to defend the meeting, promising “big results” from better relations with Russia and hitting back at “haters.”
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” Trump tweeted.
He added: “We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match.”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump wrote that Russia has agreed to help in delicate negotiations with North Korea. But he gave no details on how and when that might happen.
“Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!” he wrote.
Amid bipartisan condemnation of his embrace of a longtime U.S. enemy, Trump sought to end the recrimination by delivering a rare admission of error Tuesday. He backed away from his public undermining of American intelligence agencies, saying he misspoke when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t, or why it wouldn’t be Russia’” instead of “why it would,” Trump said Tuesday of the comments he had made in Helsinki.
That didn’t explain why Trump, who had tweeted a half-dozen times and sat for two television interviews since the Putin news conference, waited so long to correct his remarks. And the scripted cleanup pertained only to the least defensible of his comments.
He didn’t reverse other statements in which he gave clear credence to Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian involvement, raised doubts about his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions and advanced discredited conspiracy theories about election meddling.
Trump also accused past American leaders, rather than Russia’s destabilizing actions in the U.S. and around the world, for the souring of relations between two countries. And he did not address his other problematic statements during a week-long Europe tour, in which he sent the NATO alliance into emergency session and assailed British Prime Minister Theresa May as she was hosting him for an official visit.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump conceded Tuesday. But even then he made a point of adding, “It could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all.”
Moments earlier, the usually reserved Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, publicly reassured America’s allies in Europe with whom Trump clashed during his frenzied trip last week.
“The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not,” McConnell declared.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump was trying to “squirm away” from his comments alongside Putin. “It’s 24 hours too late and in the wrong place,” he said.
By dusk, hundreds of activists, led by attorney Michael Avenatti and actress Alyssa Milano, staged a protest near the White House, with chants of “traitor!” echoing along Pennsylvania Avenue.
On Capitol Hill, top Republican leaders said they were open to slapping fresh sanctions on Russia, but they showed no sign of acting any time soon.
“Let’s be very clear, just so everybody knows: Russia did meddle with our elections,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, another steady Trump political ally. “What we intend to do is make sure they don’t get away with it again and also to help our allies.”
In the Senate, McConnell said “there’s a possibility” his chamber would act, pointing to a bipartisan measure from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to deter future Russian interference by ordering sanctions against countries if they do.
Both parties called for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials to appear before Congress and tell exactly what happened during Trump’s two-hour private session with Putin. Pompeo is to publicly testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25.
Schumer also urged the Senate to take up legislation to boost security for U.S. elections and to revive a measure passed earlier by the Judiciary Committee to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
But minority Democrats have few tools to enforce anything.
In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi staged a vote in support of the intelligence committee’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. But even that largely symbolic measure was blocked party-line by Republicans.