Two former senior intelligence officials Sunday offered an extraordinary critique of President Trump's mode of dealing with foreign leaders, portraying the president as cowed by Russia's Vladimir Putin and overly susceptible to flattery by rivals likely seeking to manipulate him.
The broadsides by ex-CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper followed months of tension between the White House and the intelligence community over the president's reluctance to publicly accept intelligence assessments that Russia sought to sway the 2016 vote in his favor.
That long-running contretemps flared again over the weekend when Trump, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as he traveled in Asia, implied that he took Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word that Russia had not acted to influence the U.S. election. Trump also said that raising the issue was insulting to Putin.
On Sunday, in Hanoi, Trump partially walked back those remarks, telling reporters that "I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted" in their assessment — implying he still mistrusted former intelligence chiefs who served in the Obama administration. A day earlier, he described the ex-directors of major intelligence agencies as "political hacks."
Brennan, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," said the president's stance, even somewhat softened, was incompatible with established facts.
"It's very clear that the Russians interfered in the election, and it's still puzzling as to why Mr. Trump does not acknowledge that and embrace it and also push back hard against Mr. Putin," he said.
Trump, he said, should state "very clearly and strongly that this is a national security problem, and to say to Mr. Putin, 'We know you did it, you have to stop it, because there are going to be consequences if you don't.'"
Brennan was unusually explicit in suggesting that the Russian leader had some sort of hold over Trump — a theory often voiced by Democratic political figures, but one that intelligence veterans generally avoid.
"I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he can do, or what might come out as a result of these investigations," Brennan said, apparently referring to the wide-ranging probe being carried out by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and several separate congressional investigations.
Characterizing Trump's dealings with Russia as colored by "naivete, ignorance or fear," the former CIA chief said the tenor of Trump's encounters with Putin — the latest of which came during his Asia trip — fueled the belief, especially among authoritarian or adversarial leaders, that it was easy to take advantage of the U.S. president.
"I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint," Brennan said.
Clapper, also appearing on CNN, said Trump's reluctance to fully acknowledge Kremlin interference was both puzzling and dangerous.
"I don't know why the ambiguity about this, because the threat posed by Russia is manifest, and obviously has been for a long time," he said. "To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and in fact poses a peril to this country."
Clapper concurred with Brennan's view that Trump "seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance" afforded by overseas visits.
"I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities," Clapper said.
The former intelligence chiefs' comments drew a sharp response from Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, also interviewed on CNN. He said Trump was "not getting played by anybody" and that it was "ridiculous" to suggest he was being manipulated by Putin or anyone else.
Some Republican lawmakers have also been critical of the president on the Russia issue, directly or indirectly. A day after a harsh response to Trump's initial remarks by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, tweeted Sunday that the intelligence community had concluded that Russia interfered in last year's vote and "we should expect them to attempt to do so again."
"That's a clear and present danger to our democracy," he added.
Trump surrogates sought again Sunday to frame Russia campaign interference as having led to a fruitless investigation of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin — even though Mueller has given no sign that the probe is winding down, and the intelligence community did not attempt to address whether the interference affected the election outcome.
White House legislative director Marc Short, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," said Trump "believes that after a year of investigations, of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, there is zero evidence of any ballot being impacted by Russian interference."
Mueller's investigation, which Trump again over the weekend decried as being based on a Democratic hoax, has led to the indictment of Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and another aide, along with a guilty plea from a junior Trump campaign associate who is apparently cooperating with investigators. More indictments are expected.
Following another of Trump's often-used talking points, Short stressed the benefits of a cooperative relationship with Putin on security matters.
"I think the president is more interested in figuring out how can we partner with them to help prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons," he said.
Trump on Sunday repeated that a good working relationship with Putin could pay big dividends.
"Having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability," he told reporters in Vietnam.