Let’s begin with a statement that is widely accepted as fact: Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Officials from the intelligence community — the FBI, NSA, CIA and 14 other agencies — have unanimously concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered hacking during last year’s campaign. Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill agree.
Even so, nearly six months into President Trump’s administration, he still finds it difficult to place the blame solely on Russia.
Now, on the eve of his first face-to-face meeting with Putin, Trump hinted Thursday that “other countries” could have meddled in the election.
What does that mean? Which countries? Is this new rhetoric from Trump?
What exactly did Trump say?
During a joint news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda, an American reporter asked Trump the following:
“Will you, once and for all — yes or no — definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election?” asked NBC News reporter Hallie Jackson.
“I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries,” Trump said. “I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time.”
What are the “other countries?”
It’s unclear. In Trump’s response to the initial question, he answered this on his own.
“I won’t be specific,” he said.
Has the intelligence community ever indicated “other countries” interfered in the election?
No — at least not publicly.
In January, the U.S. intelligence community released a report that specifically highlighted Russia’s attempts to influence the election. The report did not mention any other countries.
“We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the report concluded.
Moreover, the report noted Russia’s goal was to “undermine public faith” in Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic challenger.
How has Trump responded to the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russia?
For months, he’s battled with the intelligence community — at times questioning their integrity while castigating leakers within the agencies.
When it comes specifically to Russian hacking, Trump has offered a mixed bag of viewpoints.
He has alluded to China and “other countries,” but has not provided evidence or support from the intelligence agencies.
In January, weeks ahead of his inauguration, Trump released a statement about Russia meddling in the election. It came on the same day the report from the intelligence community was released.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election,” he said in a statement.
More recently, though, he has repeatedly castigated former President Obama for failing to do anything about Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign — and in the process, seemed to implicitly acknowledge that Russia had, in fact, interfered.
“The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling,” Trump tweeted last month.
What else did Trump say in Warsaw?
Trump did not make matters any clearer at his news conference. In one response, he essentially threw up his hands on the topic.
“I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries,” Trump said. “Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
As he has in the past, he went on to compare the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia to an earlier blunder. Prior to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, intelligence officials said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After the U.S. overthew Hussein, officials acknowledged that the Iraqi leader had not had the weapons.
“I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, how everybody was 100% sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess,” Trump said. “They were wrong and it led to a mess.“
Trump is in Europe. What are people back home saying about his comments?
Usually it’s frowned upon for a president to speak critically of fellow Americans while on foreign soil.
Trump threw that norm to the side Thursday.
He criticized Obama again as having done “nothing” to stop Russian interference, while also casting doubts on the intelligence community’s work.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s comments “undermine U.S. interests.”
“The president's comments today, again casting doubt on whether Russia was behind the blatant interference in our election and suggesting — his own intelligence agencies to the contrary — that nobody really knows, continue to directly undermine U.S. interests,” Schiff said in a statement. “This is not putting America first, but continuing to propagate his own personal fiction at the country's expense.”
Schiff called on Trump to address Russia’s meddling when he meets with Putin on Friday.
“Trump must have the courage to raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections directly with President Putin, otherwise the Kremlin will conclude he is too weak to stand up to them,” he said. “That would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come.”
R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO under the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s comments were clearly out of sync with those giving him intelligence briefings.
“The U.S. intelligence community is rarely united on any issue,” Burns said on CNN, speaking of Russian hacking. “They've been united for six months on this issue in their public report to the American people.”
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