The White House entered its third day of trying to explain whether Donald Trump believes Vladimir Putin or the U.S. intelligence community about Russia's role in the 2016 election and whether it is continuing its cyber efforts.
Asked point-blank by CBS’s Jeff Glor if he holds Putin responsible for meddling in the 2016 election, Trump said: “Well, I would, because he’s in charge of the country.” Trump added that he privately told Putin in Helsinki: “We can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
That interview followed a series of tortured, ambiguous statements over the last few days, including one just hours earlier.
Asked during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday whether he thought Russia was continuing to conduct cyber operations in the United States in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Trump appeared to say no, which contradicts warnings from intelligence officials that Russia’s efforts are ongoing. "We are doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia," Trump added.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the president was saying “no” to taking further questions from reporters, not denying Russian meddling. "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," she added.
But given the president’s past equivocations about Russian interference, including at Monday’s press conference with Putin, Trump’s comments followed a pattern of an unwillingness to confront Russia and Putin on cyberattacks.
In the wake of Friday’s detailed indictments of 12 Russians who are accused of hacking and disseminating emails meant to hurt the Democratic Party in 2016, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats called Russian hacking “ongoing” and “pervasive.”
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” he said at a speech at the Hudson Institute last week. “Today the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
There’s “a BIG discrepancy between President Trump’s statement and DNI Coates’ warning,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on Twitter.
“It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections,” Graham said. “My personal view: The Russians are at again.” (Graham later said that he talked with the White House and Coats and was reassured that the administration was working hard to secure the 2018 elections.)
It was the second time this week that the White House said the president misspoke or was misunderstood on his stance toward Russia and the meddling in U.S. elections. On Monday, Trump refused to criticize Putin for Russian hacking, and said he believed Putin’s denial that Russia attacked the U.S. over the conclusions of his own intelligence officials.
A day later, Trump claimed he misspoke, with one key word.
“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn't.’ The sentence should have been: I don't see any reason why I wouldn't — or why it wouldn't be Russia,” he said.
But that clarification seemed aimed at tamping down the political backlash over his Putin summit rather than a sincere change in posture toward Russia.
“I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place,” he said, but was unable to resist adding: “Could be other people also; there's a lot of people out there.” Trump also used a Sharpie to cross out the next line in his prepared statement which said: “Anyone involved in that meddling to justice.”
Trump’s latest denial comes amid an attempt to reframe his performance in Helsinki as a success, while still refusing to blame Russia or Putin for any of the meddling in 2016, or warning them to cut it out in 2018.
Rather, he's touting his ability to get along with Putin.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)