President Donald Trump vowed Sunday to “move forward in working constructively with Russia,” including forming a “cyber security unit” between the two countries, after Russian President Vladimir Putin denied any involvement in Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump’s pledge to partner with Putin in combatting cyber security drew swift and stern denunciations from both Democratic and Republican officials, who described the U.S. president as dangerously naive for trusting his Russian counterpart.
Trump said he “strongly pressed” Putin twice about Russian meddling in the election during their Friday meeting in Germany, and that Putin “vehemently denied it.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded definitively that Russian authorities tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor with illegal hacking and propaganda and other activities. But Trump’s public comments on the matter have been far less definitive, varying widely from tepid acknowledgement to outright doubt about Russia’s role.
Trump did not say whether he accepted Putin’s denial, stating only, “I’ve already given my opinion.” Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both have said that Trump believed Putin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the election.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus disputed Putin and Lavrov’s accounts. “It’s not true,” Priebus, who did not attend the Trump-Putin meeting, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The president absolutely did not believe the denial of President Putin.”
Under questioning from Fox host Chris Wallace, Preibus showed varying degrees of certainty about whether Trump believes Russia meddled in the election.
“He said they probably meddled in the election. They did meddle in the election,” Priebus said, seeming to grow more certain. But, then, Priebus seemed to back off: “Yes, he believes that Russia probably committed all of these acts that we’ve been told of. But he also believes that other countries also participated in this activity.”
Trump’s Sunday morning statements came in a defiant series of tweets he issued from the White House, to which he returned late Saturday following a three-day visit to Hamburg, Germany, where he met with Putin and other world leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit.
In his tweets, Trump repeated his false accusation that President Barack Obama did “NOTHING” after first learning of Russia’s role in hacking Democratic email servers to influence the outcome of the election. He also chided the news media, among other statements.
John Brennan, who served as CIA director under Obama and ran the agency’s response to Russia’s election interference, chastised Trump on Sunday for repeatedly casting doubt about the conclusions of the intelligence community, including at a news conference last week in Poland.
“I seriously question whether or not Mr. Putin heard from Mr. Trump what he needed to about the assault on our democratic institutions,” Brennan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Brennan added of Trump, “He said it’s an ‘honor’ to meet President Putin. An honor to meet the individual who carried out the assault against our election? To me, it was a dishonorable thing to say.”
Trump’s pledge to work with Putin on cyber security come as U.S. government officials told The Washington Post that Russian government hackers were behind recent intrusions into the systems of U.S. nuclear power and other energy companies.
Trump also said on Twitter Sunday that the United States would not lift sanctions on Russia “until the Ukranian & Syrian problems are solved,” a reference to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and role in the Syrian civil war.
Trump said the issue of sanctions was not discussed in his meeting Friday with Putin, apparently contradicting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in attendance and later told reporters that Trump did discuss sanctions with Putin.
Tillerson told reporters that Trump “took note” of congressional efforts to push for additional sanctions against Russia, but that he and Putin focused their discussion on “how do we move forward from here.” Tillerson added, “It’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution of that [sanctions] question between the two nations.”
Trump signaled Sunday that he was turning the page on U.S.-Russia relations, pleading to “move forward in working constructively” and boasting about a “cyber security unit” he and Putin discussed forming “so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.”
Tillerson told reporters Sunday that the United States and Russia agreed “to explore a framework under which we might begin to have agreement on how to deal with these very complex issues of cyber threats, cyber security, cyber intrusions.”
Traveling in Kiev, Ukraine, Tillerson told reporters that the United States faces cyber threats from many countries. “This is a challenge obviously for us globally,” he said. “So Russia’s not the only nation.”
Trump’s suggestion of cyber security partnership drew strong criticism. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said on Twitter that partnering with Putin to cyber security was akin to partnering with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on chemical weapons. Rubio said Putin “will never be a trusted ally or a reliable constructive partner.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Trump’s meeting with Putin was “disastrous” and said partnering with Russia on cyber security is “not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close.”
“When it comes to Russia, he’s got a blind spot,” Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “To forgive and forget when it comes to Putin regarding cyber attacks is to empower Putin, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Former Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who served under Obama at the time of Russia’s interference in the election, said Trump working with Putin to combat cyber attacks “is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”
Carter said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “This isn’t just a matter of looking backward. This is a matter of looking forward. We’re going to have elections in a year and a half. There are state elections, municipal elections, as well as national elections. There are elections in other countries. It’s important that there be consequences for the Russians in regard to this.”
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defended her boss’ cooperation with Putin, saying “we won’t ever trust Russia” but that working with Russia on cyber security will “keep them in check.”
“From a cyber standpoint, we need to get together with Russia, we need to tell them what we think should happen, shouldn’t happen, and if we talk to them about it hopefully we can cut this out and get them to stop,” Haley said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
She continued, “It doesn’t mean we’ve ever taken our eyes off of the ball. It doesn’t mean we ever trust Russia. We can’t trust Russia and we won’t ever trust Russia. But you keep those that you don’t trust closer so that you can always keep an eye on them and keep them in check, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Russia right now.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin praised the idea of a U.S.-Russian cyber-security partnership, likening it to military exercises conducted with U.S. allies. Mnuchin did not mention that — according to U.S. intelligence agencies — Russia is not an ally, but an adversary in cyber space, probing American defenses for weakness.
“This is a very important step forward,” Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” The goal, he said, is “we make sure that they never interfere with any democratic elections, or conduct any cyber security. And this is like any other strategic alliance, whether we’re doing military exercises with our allies, or anything else. This is about having capabilities to make sure that we both fight cyber together, which I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s interference in the election, accused Trump of undermining the U.S. position in his talks with Putin.
“To say, OK, it’s been resolved now, we can move on — I don’t think we can move on,” Schiff said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I don’t think we can expect the Russians to be any kind of a credible partner in some cyber-security unit. I think that would be dangerously naive for this country. If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, wrote in a series of tweets Sunday morning that Trump was “glossing over” Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and Syria and its cyber aggression.
Washington Post writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.