WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, who has been under fire for not aggressively confronting Russian President Vladmir Putin over election interference, on Wednesday said he believes Russia is no longer targeting the United States.
“Thank you very much, no,” Trump said in response to a question from a reporter about whether Russia is still targeting the United States. He also asserted 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.
His assessment of Russia’s current aggression is at odds with the views of U.S. intelligence officials. 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.
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-New Jersey, said on MSNBC. “It is appalling that the president cannot seem to stand up to Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, 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-New York, suggested Trump needed to do another round of damage control.
“Mr. President. Walk this back too,” Schumer wrote on Twitter.
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!”
Trump’s performance at Monday’s news conference drew widespread condemnation, as he appeared to side with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
In a subsequent tweet Wednesday, Trump claimed that a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels last week was an “acknowledged triumph” and that his summit with Putin “may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success.”
Trump said that Russia agreed to help with North Korea and claimed that the “process is moving along.”
“Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!” Trump wrote.
Trump tweeted “While the NATO meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success. Many positive things will come out of that meeting..
“….Russia has agreed to help with North Korea, where relationships with us are very good and the process is moving along. There is no rush, the sanctions remain! Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!”
The Trump administration has faced a rocky road since the president’s summit last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in advancing Trump’s goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. After a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month, North Korean officials described the U.S. stance during the talks as regrettable, gangster-like and cancerous.
Trump returned to the subject of his relationship with Putin later Wednesday morning, asserting that some people would rather go to war than see him get along well with Putin.
“It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!” the president wrote on Twitter, borrowing a line from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who was one of his most vocal defenders in the wake of the Helsinki summit.
In recent days, Paul has called those who questioned Trump’s efforts to build a relationship with Putin “unhinged” and “crazy.”
Trump tweeted: “Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway brushed off suggestions by reporters at the White House that Trump’s tweets amounted to a change in posture from comments the president made on Tuesday. She said he and Putin discussed “a range of issues” besides election interference and that the president is hopeful he can work with Russia on several fronts.
Trump’s tweets prompted a new round of criticism from Democrats, including Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who said that only Russian people appreciated Trump’s joint news conference with Putin.
“Also, the rest of us less intelligent people in America thought your performance in Helsinki was disgraceful,” Lieu said.
In Tuesday’s remarks at the White House, Trump said he had misspoken when he appeared to accept Putin’s denials in Helsinki that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.
At the news conference in Helsinki, Trump said of the culprit that interfered, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia.
On Tuesday, Trump asserted that he had misspoken by saying “would” instead of “wouldn’t.”
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” Trump told reporters.
While Trump on Wednesday characterized his gathering with NATO leaders last week as an “acknowledged triumph,” several U.S. allies were rattled by his performance at the summit.
At the outset of the gathering, Trump upbraided allies for not living up to an agreement on how much they should pay for defense. The president also criticized Germany for a natural gas pipeline deal with Russia, saying it made the country “captive” to Russia.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.