Senior U.S. national security officials were clear Thursday afternoon: The Kremlin was involved in meddling in the 2016 American election and continues to be oversee efforts to do so again. Hours later, however, President Donald Trump described himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin as buddies.
As it often does, the Trump White House on Thursday sent mixed — starkly opposite, really — messages about Moscow’s ongoing hostile actions to upend the American political system and U.S.-Russian relations. The confusion leaves those very officials and lawmakers — including Republicans who have criticized Trump as too weak on Putin — still searching for the official administration stance on election meddling and posture toward America’s Cold War rival.
“In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin," Trump said Thursday evening at a political rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “We discussed everything. ... We got along really well. By the way, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Contrast that to what Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said at the White House briefing room podium hours earlier when asked: “Are we talking about rogue Russian individuals, or are we talking about the Kremlin?”
“I'm thinking you can — both,” the former GOP Indiana senator Trump picked for the job replied.
“Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence, through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies — all of the above, and potentially more,” Coats said. “It is pervasive, it is ongoing with the intent to achieve their intent, and that is, drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, another Trump pick after he fired James Comey from the same post, described a Russian campaign to “influence by both overtly and covertly manipulating news stories, spreading disinformation, leveraging economic resources and escalating divisive issues.”
“But it's important to understand this is not just an election cycle threat,” Wray said. “Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it's election season or not.”
But hours later in Pennsylvania, the president undercut his senior national security officials’ message, which was delivered just yards from his desk in the Oval Office.
“Now we’re being hindered by the Russian hoax,” Trump roared. “It’s a hoax, okay?”
That is a stark difference to what Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this week when he declared it is a “fact” that Russia meddled, and how his Homeland Security secretary on Thursday described the Russia election and opinion influence operation.
“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Kirstjen Nielsen said at the same White House briefing.
“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries who seek,” she said, “as the DNI just said, to sow discord and undermine our way of life.”
Coats, Nielsen, Wray and White House national security adviser John Bolton came to the briefing room to sound an alarm and try to describe how the administration is looking for and countering Russia’s efforts with the midterm elections just four months away.
But the president delivered a much different message in Pennsylvania before heading to his New Jersey golf resort for a 10-day vacation.
He again claimed Putin and Russian officials are “very unhappy” that he won the 2016 election — even though Putin stood mere feet away from him in Helsinki and told reporters he is glad Trump won because the former reality television host talked as a candidate about warming U.S.-Russian relations while Hillary Clinton’s Russia policy was much tougher.
Trump seemed to dismiss media criticism of his Helsinki performance alongside the Russian strongman — though he neglected to mention before the friendly crowd that many GOP lawmakers also panned his remarks as “weak.”
Hours after his national security team delivered a sobering and serious message, the commander in chief mimicked in comical fashion getting into a fist fight with Putin, saying his critics wanted him to “go up and have a boxing match.”
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