Despite repeated warnings from intelligence officials and his own FBI director that Russia is carrying out a blatant attack on American democracy, President Donald Trump summed up his views at a rally on Monday in very simple terms, “I like Putin, he likes me.”
Trump has consistently expressed a personal affinity for his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since taking office nearly four years ago. US But the fact that his latest comments come as US intelligence agencies are sounding the alarm about Moscow’s ongoing interference in the 2020 election offers a stark reminder that Trump has no problem with foreign meddling if it appears to help him politically.
It also marks yet another instance in which Trump has undercut his intelligence community ahead of the November election. He not only refuses to condemn Russia for interfering in the American democratic process, but is also seeking to downplay the threat posed by Moscow. In many ways, it’s a repeat performance of 2016, where he capitalized on Russian meddling and then denied that it happened.
But while Trump and several top allies have recently sought to cast China as the greatest threat to the election, evidence continues to emerge suggesting Russia is not only already interfering, as FBI director Christopher Wray explicitly told House lawmakers last week, but it is doing so at the direction of Putin and other senior Kremlin officials, according to a Washington Post report published Tuesday.
The CIA assessed in August that Putin and his top aides “are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations” aimed at undermining Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the Post story reads.
“We assess that President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former US Vice President, supporting the US president and fueling public discord ahead of the US election in November,” the first line of the assessment reads, according to the Post.
The assessment mirrors what US intelligence agencies concluded after 2016: that Putin personally directed the pro-Trump meddling campaign that year.
Shades of 2016
While US intelligence agencies have publicly accused Russia of actively interfering in the 2020 election, seeking to denigrate Biden’s White House bid, the agencies did not provide any assessment of Putin’s potential involvement.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in a statement in August.
The US accused Putin in 2017 of directing all efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
“We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes,” US intelligence said in a statement following the 2016 election.
In his statement from August, Evanina also accused pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Adrii Derkach of “spreading claims about corruption” to undermine Biden’s candidacy.
The Post reported Tuesday that the CIA assessment details Derkach’s efforts to spread and boost anti-Biden information through lobbyists, Congress and US news outlets. Though the document refers to Derkach interacting with a “prominent” person tied to Trump’s campaign, it does not identify the person, according to the Post.
Derkach has close ties to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who the Post reports is not named in the CIA assessment. Over the past year, Derkach has worked closely with Giuliani and right-wing outlets like One America News Network to peddle anti-Biden material, according to past CNN reporting and Derkach’s public statements.
Derkach has released and promoted alleged audiotapes of a 2016 conversation between Biden and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The US Treasury sanctioned Derkach earlier this month and labeled him an “active Russian agent.”
However, Trump appears to be on a different page to the rest of his administration and even retweeted a post containing snippets of the audio last month – accusing Biden of improprieties, though there is no proof of wrongdoing on the tapes.
The President also continues to promote friendly relations with Putin on the campaign trail.
“I like Putin. He likes me. We get along. Wouldn’t you say it’s smart to get along? OK? It’s smart,” he told supporters in Ohio on Monday.
Trump still sensitive about all things Russia
Trump’s stance is consistent with his long-standing reluctance to criticize Russia for its meddling in US elections, both past and present.
US intelligence agencies, special counsel Robert Mueller and bipartisan reports from Congress have released overwhelming evidence that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. Trump has vociferously denied that his campaign colluded with Russia. But he has also repeatedly denied the reality that Russia meddled in the election.
Instead, Trump has embraced conspiracy theories that absolve Russia of responsibility. He even publicly accepted Putin’s denials during their infamous 2018 summit in Finland, which former national security adviser John Bolton described in his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” as a “self-inflicted wound” for Trump.
Several former national security officials who served in the Trump administration have said the President remains very sensitive about the issue of Russian election interference due to personal insecurities about how Moscow worked to help his campaign during the 2016 race and an obsession with winning in 2020.
Trump aides told Mueller that the President thinks acknowledging Russia’s role in the 2016 election would delegitimize his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
As such, Trump has recently decried any suggestion that Russia’s threat to the upcoming election is as dangerous as China’s as equivalent to the partisan “witch hunt” against him – a view that has been factored into the messaging of administration officials, who have focused their public comments on Beijing and downplayed Moscow’s actions, sources told CNN.
Trump has also failed to call out Russia or confront Putin directly over a variety of other actions that have impacted the US and its allies, including reported intelligence indicating Moscow offered bounties to the Taliban to target American troops in Afghanistan.
More recently, Trump has refused to say whether he believes Putin and the Kremlin were responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny last month despite the fact that several other world leaders have demanded answers.
“Uh … We’ll talk about that at another time,” Trump told reporters on Monday when asked about the incident.
Asked if the President of the United States has an obligation to call out Putin and other Russian officials publicly for their actions, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on CNN Tuesday: “Well, of course.”
“That’s kind of what’s missing here. I’m sure a lot has been done at the federal and state and local level, but what is missing here is the voice that can only come from the bully pulpit of the president to dime out what the Russians are doing and to caution American voters to recognize what the Russians are doing, and for whatever reason we don’t have that,” he added.
The Biden campaign has attempted to seize on Trump’s reluctance to criticize Russia, attacking the President for remaining silent on a host of issues, including election interference. “This president is even giving Russia impunity for offering bounties to terrorists for murdering American troops. As Joe Biden has said for months, it is absolutely clear who Vladimir Putin wants to win this election — because Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been a gift to the Kremlin,” campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement reacting to the Washington Post story published Tuesday.
Bates also condemned Trump’s allies in Congress for choosing “to be accessories to foreign influence operations against the very sovereignty of the United States,” an apparent reference to an investigation into the former vice president’s dealings in Ukraine being conducted by Senate Republicans.
CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Marshall Cohen and Sara Mucha contributed reporting