When asked if Russia is still targeting the United States and its midterm congressional elections, President Donald Trump on Wednesday responded “no” — again breaking with his top intelligence official.
His own top intelligence brass recently warned “red lights” are blinking with regard to Moscow’s plans to again meddle in an American election, spy talk used only when a threat is imminent.
“The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Friday during an event at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
U.S. intelligence leaders only refer to the “red lights” when matters are dire.
Trump on Whether Russia is Still Targeting the U.S.: ‘No’
“It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, ‘the system is blinking red,’” Coats said. “And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again.”
The remark, which came in response to a reporter’s question as journalists were being escorted from a Cabinet meeting at the White House, marked the second time in three days the president has broken with the former GOP senator from Indiana.
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question [of Putin]. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said Monday alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
On Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the remark during a joint press conference, Trump tried to walk back that remark, saying he would have replaced “would” with “wouldn’t.”
Trump also contended anew on Wednesday that no other U.S. president has been “as tough on Russia as I have been,” telling reporters Russian President Vladimir Putin is aware of his alleged toughness.
After Wednesday’s events, the White House sought to alter the narrative. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president did was not replying to a reporter’s question about whether he believes Russia is still targeting the United States and its elections. Rather, she contended, the president said “no” to reporters’ desire to ask questions.
“We certainly believe we are taking steps so they cannot do it again,” Sanders said. “He does believe that they would target U.S. elections again.”
Watch: Trump Says He ‘Misspoke’ on Russian Election Meddling
But senior Russian officials described Monday’s Trump-Putin summit as going “super” for them.
Meantime, Trump also threatened “tremendous retribution” if his planned meeting with European Commission officials next week in Washington fails to produce a trade deal he deems fair on automobiles.
Trump reportedly weeks ago threatened to slap imports on European automakers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW unless the European Union makes it easier for American auto manufacturers to sell their models across the pond. Last month, White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow would not deny Trump’s anti-European auto imports plan when pressed by Roll Call.
Trump referred to the EU as “a foe” on trade matters in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday. The global auto industry is a complicated checkerboard though, with several foreign firms producing cars in U.S. states. Any sort of tariff decision could adversely affect those states.
That sort of consideration has prompted alarm among members of Congress. House members to warn in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dated Wednesday that tariffs or restrictions on imported cars and car parts would hurt their local auto-dependent economies.
The 149 lawmakers outlined their concerns to Ross a day before a public hearing by Commerce as part of its Section 232 review of car imports that could lead to U.S. tariffs.
Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.