Under pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion

Under pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE on Tuesday sought to deflect criticism of his handling of Russia by blaming former President Obama’s administration for not doing more to stop Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.

“I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!” Trump tweeted.


Critics have seized on Trump’s refusal to directly condemn Russia following last week’s indictment of more than a dozen Russians accused of interfering in the election.

Over the holiday weekend, Trump made clear his frustration with the indictment, unleashing a series of tweets claiming the charges prove his campaign did not collude with the Kremlin.

The president also lashed out at Obama for not doing more to counter Moscow’s efforts, which he has previously called a “hoax” concocted to undermine his 2016 victory. According to the indictment, the Russian effort to interfere in U.S. politics first began in 2014.

Trump’s response alarmed officials in both parties, who said he should focus his ire on Russian President Vladimir Putin and throw his support behind efforts to ensure the Russians do not succeed in interfering with the fall midterm elections.

During her first press briefing in a week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that the president has fully accepted that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

“One of the places where you guys seem to get very confused — and it seems to happen regularly — the president hasn’t said that Russia didn’t meddle,” she told reporters.

Sanders was peppered with questions during the course of her 20-minute briefing about what the administration is doing to prevent future Russian interference, and she pointed to efforts at the Cabinet level to coordinate with state election officials.

The spokeswoman also rattled off ways the Trump administration believes it has done more to counter Russia than its predecessor, including boosting military spending, exporting energy to Eastern Europe, upholding sanctions against Russia for election interference and approving arms sales to Ukraine. (Obama issued the sanctions in December 2016 in retaliation for Russia’s election meddling.)

Critics have pointed out Trump recently refused to implement new sanctions on Russia, despite a new law passed by Congress ordering his administration to do just that.

Sanders also hinted at an “incident” that will become public in the coming days that will show just how tough Trump has been on Moscow. She did not elaborate further.

“He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined,” Sanders said.

Trump’s comments have reignited a debate in Washington over whether Obama should have done more to counter Russia’s influence campaign in the months leading up to the 2016 election.

The indictment against 13 Russians issued as part of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation asserted a wide-ranging effort to influence the U.S. electorate, with fake social media posts used to inflame debate on issues like minority rights and gun control.

In the 2016 campaign, according to the indictment, the Russians shifted their focus to specifically supporting Trump and attacking Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page files defamation lawsuit against DNC Dems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE, often by portraying her as a criminal in social media posts. The Russians concealed their activities in the U.S., according to Mueller, even as they helped stage pro-Trump rallies in key states like Florida.

Given the breach of the electoral system, many officials in both parties have said now isn’t the time for Trump to play the blame game.

Mueller released a new indictment on Tuesday. While the figure involved in that indictment on the periphery of the Russia probe, the action highlighted the speed with which his office is pursuing Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. political system, which are still taking place.

Twitter accounts suspected of being Russian bots blasted out a torrent of messages after last week’s school shooting in Florida in a way that promoted divisiveness over gun rights.

And the first batch of midterm election voters will head to the polls early next month, when the first primaries open in Texas.

Some state officials worry that a lack of leadership from the top is hampering Cabinet officials and lower-level aides who are at the forefront of efforts to prevent Russia from intruding on another election.

“[The problem is] clear to me and to everybody except one person: the commander in chief, who continues to have his head in the sand on Russian interference in the 2016 elections,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) said in an interview.

“His ongoing denial of what happened sends the absolute wrong message to the public, but specifically to the [Homeland Security] secretary and the rank and file,” Padilla continued. “We are working against the message coming out of the White House.”

Padilla spoke after attending a classified briefing last week held by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, along with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, for election officials from all 50 states.

“The American public’s confidence that their vote counts — and is counted correctly — relies on secure election infrastructure,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTop Judiciary Dems call for unredacted 'zero tolerance' memo The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem path to a Senate majority narrows Hillicon Valley: Officials warn of Chinese influence efforts | Dow drops over 800 points | Tech stocks hit hard | Google appeals B EU fine | James Murdoch may be heading for Tesla | Most Americans worried about election security MORE said in a statement Tuesday making public a series of meetings with state officials and private-sector election vendors.

Nielsen said the gatherings were part of an effort that has been going on “for more than a year to bolster the cybersecurity of the nation’s election infrastructure.”

Trump and Vice President Pence ate lunch with Nielsen on Tuesday and part of the discussion touched on “cyber and election security efforts,” according to the White House.

The Justice Department also announced the formation of a cyber-digital task force — which Trump asked Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFBI investigated whether McCabe leaked info about Flynn and Trump to media Ex-Senate Intel staffer pleads guilty to lying to feds over contacts with journalists House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein MORE to expedite — “to prioritize its study of efforts to interfere with our elections” along with other cyber threats.

But some state officials say they are not getting enough help from the Trump administration to protect their voting systems, despite top intelligence and law enforcement officials testifying to Congress that there is evidence Russia has already tried to interfere with the midterms.

“What’s telling was that it was the first meeting of its kind ever,” Padilla said of last week’s gathering.

Padilla said there has been “no shortage of frustration with the quality of communication and collaboration over the course of the last year,” but left the meeting hopeful the administration’s response could improve.

“We heard a lot of, ‘we’re committed,’ ‘it’s a new day,’ ‘we get it’ — a sense of urgency,” he said. “But only time will tell if it results in closer coordination and collaboration.”