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Trump administration officials seek once again to downplay Russian election interference

Trump
President Trump speaks to reporters Sunday before leaving the White House on a trip to India.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

President Trump’s national security advisor, in an exchange that touched on a perennial sore point for the president, said Sunday he had no knowledge of intelligence agency warnings that Russia is trying once again to help Trump by interfering in the 2020 campaign.

Another senior White House aide, meanwhile, insisted that last week’s abrupt removal of retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire as acting director of national intelligence was unrelated to Trump’s unhappiness over a closed-door intelligence briefing to lawmakers about Russian attempts at election interference.

Russian campaign meddling remains a highly sensitive subject for the president as he presses ahead with his reelection bid and as the Democratic contest for the nomination to oppose him gathers pace.

Trump has moved to punish those he saw as supporters of his impeachment for abusing power and obstructing Congress. During the proceedings, which ended with his acquittal earlier this month in a Senate trial, his backers suggested that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered with the 2016 campaign.

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National security advisor Robert C. O’Brien, in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said he was not aware of any effort by Russia to try to bolster Trump’s 2020 prospects, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded Moscow sought to do in 2016.

“There’s no briefing that I’ve received, that the president has received, that says that President Putin is doing anything to try and influence the elections in favor of President Trump,” O’Brien said. “We just haven’t seen that intelligence.”

Multiple news reports have said lawmakers were told last week that the Kremlin is seeking to aid Trump, and also looking to help Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont secure the Democratic nomination. Sanders acknowledged Friday that he was apprised last month by U.S. officials about unspecified Russian efforts to help his chances of becoming the nominee.

Trump’s campaign aides have said they believe he would fare well in a matchup with Sanders, and the president Sunday congratulated the Vermont senator for his “great win” in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.

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He also suggested anew that Democratic Party leaders might seek to deprive him of the nomination.

“I hope they’re treated fairly,” Trump said of the Sanders campaign, speaking to reporters outside the White House before leaving for a visit to India.

A prominent Democratic lawmaker Sunday pointed to the prospect of intelligence findings on Russia’s activities being wielded as a weapon by the White House in the months between now and the November vote.

“I think we all worry about this administration controlling massive amounts of intelligence, massive amounts of classified information, and leaking it out to the press when it advantages them,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Senior Trump aides, meanwhile, appeared on the defensive over last week’s replacement of Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, with a staunch Trump partisan, Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, denied in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that Maguire’s precipitous departure was prompted by Trump’s displeasure over a briefing to members of Congress given by one of Maguire’s deputies. The official told the House Intelligence Committee about continuing Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential campaign.

“Did the president have information from [the director’s office] that he was disturbed about, in terms of what the House had been told?” host Chris Wallace asked.

“No,” Short responded.

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Pence’s chief of staff also depicted Maguire’s departure as in line with the scheduled end of his tenure by March 12, since he was serving in an acting capacity. “It’s not firing,” he said.

When Wallace pressed him about whether Maguire was instructed to clear his desk by 9 a.m. the next day, Short said: “I don’t know if he was told or not — I haven’t heard that.”

Trump’s own remarks, though, suggested he was upset about what transpired in the briefing. He suggested that Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) was behind news reports about Kremlin efforts to influence the election outcome.

“They ought to investigate Adam Schiff for leaking that intelligence,” Trump said in brief remarks before leaving for India. He did not provide any evidence for holding Schiff responsible. A number of lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, were present for the briefing.

Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, has long been a target of Trump’s ire over impeachment and the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which wrapped up last year.

Mueller cited a sweeping and systemic effort by Moscow to interfere in the 2016 vote on Trump’s behalf, but said he did not find proof Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia.

Senior law enforcement and intelligence officials have repeatedly issued public warnings about Russian activity surrounding the 2020 vote. Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Moscow’s disinformation efforts are continuing.

“It never stopped. It happened in 2016, and it’s been continuing ever since then,” Wray told the committee on Feb. 5. “It is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year threat.”


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