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White House attempts to clarify another Trump response flap

The Washington Post

July 18. 2018 10:01PM
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

President Donald Trump sparked a new uproar over his outreach toward Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday by appearing to suggest that Russia is no longer targeting U.S. elections — prompting the White House to assert hours later that Trump’s words had been misconstrued.

At the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a reporter asked, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”

“Thank you very much. No,” Trump responded, shaking his head.

“No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”

“No,” Trump repeated before the questioner concluded.

He went on to claim that no president has been tougher on Russia than him. “I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media.” Trump told reporters.

Several hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was saying “no” to whether he would take further questions from reporters — not to whether he believed Russia continued to target the U.S. with hostile actions.

“The President said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and was saying ‘no’ to answering questions,” Sanders said. “The President and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle as they have done in the past.”

She added: “Certainly, like I just said, we believe that the threat still exists, which is why we are taking steps to prevent it.”

Trump’s remarks again put him in the position of appearing to contradict his top advisers on the threat posed by Russia, just one day after saying he accepted the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

The comments also set off a new round of criticism from lawmakers in both parties who have widely condemned Trump in the wake of a Monday summit in Helsinki, where the U.S. President warmly embraced Putin and appeared to side with the Russian president over U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow’s aggressive interference efforts.

Last week, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said that Russia and other countries are continuing to target American businesses, the government and other institutions and that “the warning lights are blinking red.”

“These actions are persistent. They’re pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,” Coats said during a speech at a Washington think tank.

In his remarks, Coats said that the intelligence community continues to see efforts by Russian actors to manipulate U.S. public opinion, including through the use of fake social media accounts. He also sounded the alarm about potential attacks on U.S. infrastructure or the financial system.

The Homeland Security Department and FBI “in coordination with international partners — have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors,” Coats said.

And just Monday, Coats referred in a statement to “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy” by Russia.

Democrats — and some Republicans — immediately took aim at Trump’s remarks, made at the top of a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday.

“Every one of our intelligence agencies — those who are actually led by appointees of President Trump — have said that not only did Russia engage actively in trying to undermine the elections of 2016 against Secretary Clinton and for now-President Trump, but that they are continuing to do so,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said on MSNBC. “It is appalling that the President cannot seem to stand up to Vladimir Putin.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said on Twitter that there is a “BIG discrepancy” between Trump’s statement and warning by Coats.

“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.”

Trump faced withering criticism earlier this week after he seemed to side with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community over Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Tuesday, Trump sought to contain the damage by delivering a statement in which he said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but also added that there “could be other people also.”

After his latest remarks at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested Trump needed to do another round of damage control.

“Mr. President. Walk this back too,” Schumer wrote on Twitter.

Other Democrats mocked Trump and suggested something nefarious was behind his statement.

“What world is Trump living in?” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote on Twitter. “Does he not understand what’s going on? Is he being blackmailed because the Russians have compromising information on him? Or is he sympathetic to Putin’s style of authoritarianism?”

Members of Congress have been working on legislation aimed at deterring future interference in U.S. elections.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced bipartisan legislation in January that would mandate sanctions and other punishments for any foreign actor that is found to have attempted to undermine U.S. elections in the future.

“There is no reason to think this meddling will be an isolated incident,” Rubio and Van Hollen wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on the measure. “In fact, we expect the threat will grow in future years.”

Trump began the day by offering a fresh defense of his Monday summit with Putin in Helsinki, firing off morning tweets in which he claimed that his widely panned news conference afterward actually was appreciated by “many people at the higher ends of intelligence.”

“Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting,” Trump wrote. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!”


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