President Trump said Wednesday that Russia is no longer targeting the United States, contradicting his top intelligence advisor’s warning days ago that “the lights are blinking red” about cyberattacks and reigniting bipartisan concerns over his recent embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The president’s flat “no” came in response to a reporter’s question about Russian threats during a White House meeting with the Cabinet. Two hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was only saying “no” to answering any questions, a contention denied by the reporter and others in the room.
“Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?" the reporter asked as a small group of reporters was being ushered out of the meeting.
"No,” Trump responded, looking directly at the questioner. He went on to say, “We are doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia.”
The president’s apparent denial of an ongoing threat from Russia contradicted his chief intelligence advisor, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who on Friday compared warning signs of cyberattacks by Russia and others to intelligence rumblings before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has also said that Russia has not been deterred from continuing its campaign of hacking and disinformation that helped scramble the presidential race two years ago.
“We are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself,” he said.
The day after Coats issued his warning, Trump expressed his doubts in an interview with “CBS Evening News.”
“I don't know if I agree with that,” he said. “I'd have to look.”
The White House did not seek to clarify that remark. But when Trump’s answer on Wednesday immediately spawned a new round of news reports suggesting a president at odds with his intelligence advisors, and partial to Russia, the White House was forced to restart damage control efforts that began after his widely panned performance at a summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday.
After Sanders told reporters at a White House briefing that Trump was not denying that Russia is targeting the United States, but merely ruling out answering any questions, reporters who were present disputed her version.
Cecilia Vega, the ABC reporter who asked the question, said on Twitter, “Getting a lot of questions about my exchange” with Trump. “Yes, he was looking directly at me when he spoke. Yes, I believe he heard me clearly. He answered two of my questions.”
After Trump’s initial response to her, Vega immediately followed by asking, to clarify, “No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”
“No,” Trump replied again, twice.
Similarly, the White House pool report that is distributed to media outlets broadly said Trump was answering Vega, not indicating that he didn’t want to take questions. “Your pooler stands by that report,” the correspondent wrote in a subsequent report after Sanders’ briefing.
The White House’s cleanup efforts continued later as Trump sat for an interview with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor.
Though Trump had not criticized Putin in several interviews and numerous public comments since their Helsinki meeting, he told Glor that he holds the Russian leader responsible for interfering in the 2016 campaign "because he's in charge of the country."
Trump also said he told Putin during their private meeting that "we can't have meddling." That assertion cannot be confirmed because, in a break from long-standing protocol, Trump insisted on meeting Putin alone, with only their respective translators present and no senior advisors or note-takers. That meeting lasted about two hours.
"I let him know we can't have this, we're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be," Trump said.
The latest episode seeking to explain away Trump’s comments on Russia and U.S. intelligence followed his already confused and widely mocked efforts on Tuesday to tamp down the bipartisan furor over his performance in Helsinki.
During a joint news conference alongside the Russian president, Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denials over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 campaign. To one question, he also declined to publicly warn Putin not to attempt similar tactics in the future, while blaming the United States for bad relations with Moscow.
On Tuesday, after returning to Washington and facing the resulting uproar, Trump partially reversed himself, saying he misspoke and that he meant to say he does believe Russia interfered.
"I have the strongest respect for our intelligence agencies, headed by my people," he said Tuesday. Yet he also undercut that statement by immediately suggesting that other parties could be interfering as well, something unsupported by intelligence evidence.
Trump added, "We're doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018,” when the midterm election that will determine control of Congress will be held.
But his statement on Wednesday cast doubt on whether the president understands the danger and plans to defend against it.
“He is not willing to accept the reality of the threat," said Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director under President George W. Bush and as head of the National Security Agency under Bush and President Clinton. "He has not issued anything like what the government needs to mount a whole-of-government response to what the Russians are doing."
Despite Trump’s continued efforts to downplay Russia’s interference, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has only dug deeper into Moscow’s activities to help Trump in 2016. On Friday while Trump was in Britain, where he denigrated the Mueller inquiry during a news conference with the prime minister, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers charged with hacking emails and other documents from Hillary Clinton's campaign and Democratic organizations.
The charges follow another indictment from February naming 13 Russians connected to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which U.S. officials say spread disinformation on social media to inflame political tensions among Americans and boost Trump’s bid for the White House. Coats, in his speech Friday, said the Russian organization remains active.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced a bipartisan resolution Wednesday supporting both the Justice Department’s investigation and U.S. intelligence agencies' findings that Russia sought to undermine the presidential race.
"After the President’s actions over the past week, it’s important for the Senate to speak in a clear, bipartisan voice to say that we stand with and believe our Department of Justice and our Intelligence Community and that we will not tolerate future attacks from Russia or anyone else on our democracy,” Coons said in a statement.
So far during this year's election campaigns, Russia's efforts do not approach the "scale or scope" of its covert activity during 2016, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a speech Saturday.
That doesn’t mean their efforts have ended, according to intelligence officials. Coats said Russians are still "creating new social media accounts, masquerading as Americans and then using these accounts to draw attention to divisive issues."
Trump’s head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, the two organizations responsible for electronic intelligence and cyberwarfare, also recently expressed concern that not enough was being done to deter future problems.
"Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues," Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing in March.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted on Wednesday that he believes “the Russians are at it again.”
“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,” he said.
As Sanders tried to defend Trump on Wednesday, she stirred more controversy by suggesting that the president is considering Putin’s request for Russian law enforcement officials to question U.S. citizens, including the former American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.
"The president's going to meet with his team, and we'll let you know when we have an announcement on that," she said.
Russian officials have said they want to question McFaul in connection with a case involving William Browder, a U.S.-born British citizen and businessman who once invested heavily in Russia. Browder was convicted in absentia in Moscow for fraud; one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and tortured to death in prison in 2009. Browder went on to lobby successfully in Washington for a law named after Magnitsky sanctioning Russia and other countries for human rights abuses.
Although the White House didn’t shoot down the idea, the State Department did.
“The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.