The President declined to state definitively that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election
Trump's skepticism of the intelligence community could have broader implications
President Donald Trump still can’t commit.
Nearly six months into his presidency, President Donald Trump declined yet again Thursday to state definitively that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election.
Trump said it might have been Russia, but he raised the prospect that it could have been others, too, clashing with the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russian intelligence agencies interfered.
And Trump once again brought up the intelligence community’s failure 15 years ago over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as a reason to doubt the intelligence community’s conclusions.
“Well I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people and other countries,” Trump said at a news conference in Poland. “It could have been a lot of people interfered.”
“I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction. How everybody was 100% sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess,” Trump later said. “They were wrong and it led to a mess. So, it was Russia. And I think it was probably others also. And that’s been going on for a long period of time.”
Trump’s latest comments casting doubt on Russia’s meddling underscored the notion that the President still doesn’t really believe his intelligence agencies on this issue.
Trump has had a fraught relationship with the intelligence community since before coming into office, slamming leaks about possible connections between Russian officials and Trump campaign aides during the transition and in his first weeks in office.
In January, Trump sought to mend his strained relationship with the intelligence community during his first speech at the CIA, entering to a standing ovation and telling the 300 employees in attendance, “I am so behind you.” But his remarks, which focused heavily on the size of the crowd at his inauguration, his appearance on magazine covers and his remarks that he “has a running war with the media,” were criticized by the agency’s former director, John Brennan.
One source who attended Trump’s appearance said many people in attendance were troubled by the political aspect of the remarks, in which the President speculated about how many people in the room may have voted for him.
“We are not political in that way,” the source said. “Talking about whether we voted for Trump is offensive and foreign to us by the President … Many people felt used and awkward throughout. Of course there was applause, but it was uncomfortable.”
Trump’s intelligence skepticism
Since the election, Trump has appeared to view suggestions of Russian meddling as a Democratic effort to de-legitimize his election win, even though the intelligence community did not conclude that Russian efforts made a difference to the election result.
Trump’s skepticism of the intelligence community could have broader implications extending beyond election hacking. CNN has reported Trump’s advisers are struggling to convince him Russia still poses a threat – a concern ahead of his meeting Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and the intelligence community provides assessments on everything from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to ISIS movements in countries across the globe.
Democrats criticized Trump’s latest Russia comments and urged him to bring up the issue of meddling during his meeting with Putin.
“The President’s comments today, again casting doubt on whether Russia was behind the blatant interference in our election and suggesting – his own intelligence agencies to the contrary – that nobody really knows, continue to directly undermine US interests,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, told CNN’s John Berman that anyone who has viewed classified information about Russia’s election meddling “knows the President is not telling the truth when he says no one really knows if Russia engaged in the cyber attack last year.”
“Russia did it. There’s no rational person who looked at evidence and concluded otherwise,” Lieu said.
Five senior Democratic senators wrote a letter Thursday to Trump arguing that Trump must use his meeting with Putin to hold Russia accountable for its election hacking.
Trump’s skepticism of Russia’s hacking during the US election dates back to the campaign, where he suggested during a debate with Hillary Clinton that it could have been China or “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Blaming Iraq and Obama
Like he did Thursday, Trump has frequently raised the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as a reason to doubt the intelligence community’s conclusions.
“If you look at the weapons of mass destruction, that was a disaster, and they were wrong,” Trump told reporters at a New Year’s Eve party in Mar-a-Lago, according to The Guardian.
Trump also slammed former President Barack Obama’s handling of Russian interference Thursday as he stood next to Polish President Andrzej Duda, arguing that the former President “did nothing” to combat the interference.
“Why did he do nothing about it? He was told it was Russia by the CIA … and he did nothing about it,” Trump said. “They said he choked. I don’t think he choked. Well, I don’t think he choked. I think what happened was he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and he said let’s not do anything about it. Had he thought the other way, he would have done something about it.”
Obama confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over election meddling, though, during the 2016 G20 meeting in Hanghzhou, China. Obama later revealed that he told Putin “to cut it out” over his meddling in the 2016 election or “there were going to be serious consequences if he did not.”
The Obama administration in December 2016 expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the United States and shuttered Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, but many Democrats and Obama administration officials say they should have responded more quickly.
Trump’s comments echo those he made last month when he seized upon reports that the Obama administration could have done more to try to prevent the Russian hacking, seemingly acknowledging the Russian meddling in the process of blaming Obama for not stopping it.
“Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” Trump tweeted June 24.
The intelligence community’s assessment
At Thursday’s Poland news conference, Trump found another reason to raise doubts about the intelligence community’s assessment.
He noted that several news organization had to correct stories saying that all 17 intelligence agencies had concluded Russian meddling in the US election.
“Let me just start off by saying I heard it was 17 agencies,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Boy that’s a lot.’ Do we even have that many intelligence agencies? Right? Let’s check it. And we did some very heavy research. It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17.”
Trump is correct that The New York Times and The Associated Press issued a correction and clarification for stating that the 17 agencies that make up the US intelligence community all concluded Russia meddled in the election.
In May testimony to a Senate panel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper clarified that the intelligence community’s report concluding that Russia meddled in the US election was prepared by three agencies: the CIA, FBI, NSA, and managed by Clapper’s office, which oversees the entire intelligence community. But not all 17 intelligence agencies signed off on the document.
At the same time, Clapper also noted that no other intelligence agencies dissented from the conclusions.
“We decided it was a conscious judgment to restrict it to those three,” Clapper told Minnesota Sen. Al Franken at the hearing. “I’m not aware of anyone who dissented, or disagreed when it came out.”
Those assessments also have not changed after Trump’s team took over the intelligence agencies.
“I don’t have any doubt” that Russia was behind these activities, Clapper told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on The Situation Room Thursday. On the suggestion anyone other than Russia tried to influence the 2016 election Clapper stated: “That’s news to me. We saw no evidence.”
At another May hearing, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, asked six intelligence leaders – including Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo – whether they agreed that Russian intelligence agencies were responsible for hacking and leaking of information to influence the US election.
All six said yes.