WASHINGTON — For the second consecutive day, the White House was forced to clarify President Donald Trump’s position on Russian election interference, after he appeared to tell reporters that he did not believe Russia was still targeting the United States, a statement that would put him at odds with the conclusions of his top intelligence officer.
Trump, speaking to reporters ahead of a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Tuesday, was asked by ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega: “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”
As White House press aides attempted to escort reporters out of the room, Trump replied: “Thank you very much. No.” Vega followed up and asked “No? You don’t believe that to be the case?” Trump, looking at Vega, again replied “No,” before pausing and going on to describe himself as tougher on Russia than his predecessors.
“There's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been,” Trump said.
Hours later, as some Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the president’s latest remarks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the president was “saying ‘no’ to answering questions,” even though Trump typically ignores those shouted questions he prefers not to answer when reporters are escorted in for brief media availabilities at the White House.
“I talked to the president. He wasn’t answering that question,” Sanders said during Wednesday’s press briefing. She added that the administration believes “the threat still exists, which is why we are taking steps to prevent it.”
Sanders’ explanation came a day after Trump, facing widespread condemnation over his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, issued a statement walking back his previous acceptance of Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump, who on Monday said he didn’t see any reason “why it would be Russia” interfering in the U.S. election, said Tuesday “the sentence should have been, ‘I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, in a statement Monday, reiterated that the nation’s intelligence agencies “have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Trump, in a sit-down interview with CBS News on Wednesday, said he “would” hold Putin responsible for Russia’s cyberattacks during the 2016 election, despite not publicly condemning the leader when they stood side by side during a joint news conference Monday.
“I let him know we can't have this, we're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be,” Trump told CBS News anchor Jeff Glor when asked what he discussed with Putin for nearly two hours behind closed doors.
The president also took to Twitter to defend his widely criticized appearance with Putin, promising “big results” from their summit, while accusing “haters” of preferring war over his warm relationship with a leader regarded by most U.S. lawmakers as a foe not a friend.
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” Trump tweeted. “Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump wrote Wednesday: “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!”
The president’s portrayal of a productive meeting came after congressional leaders spent the past two days calling on him to retreat from his acceptance of what he described Monday as Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of Russian election hacking in the 2016 presidential election.
With few details emerging about what was said during Trump and Putin’s closed door chat, congressional Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have called on Republicans to hold hearings into what was discussed.
Sanders did not respond to questions about whether any deals were reached by Trump and Putin, but did say the president “will meet with his team” to weigh an offer made by Putin to allow federal investigators access to 12 Russians indicted by the United States on election interference charges, in exchange for Russia’s access to Americans accused by Putin’s government of other crimes.
“He wants to work with his team and determine if there's any validity that would be helpful to the process,” Sanders said of Trump. “But again, we've committed to nothing.”