Trump says Russia doesn’t pose threat, contradicting intelligence director

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE on Wednesday said Russia does not pose a threat to the United States, contradicting his director of national intelligence on a critical security issue and deepening a political controversy that began at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, besieged with criticism over his perceived deference to Putin at the summit, for a second day sought to do damage control on the crisis, stating that no one had been tougher than he on Russia.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There has never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been," Trump told reporters before a Cabinet meeting at the White House. 

The president said his administration is “doing very well” in countering Russia, citing U.S. sanctions on Moscow and the expulsion of Russian nationals accused of being spies. 

“I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media. He understands it, and he's not happy about it,” Trump said.

But seconds later, Trump said “no” when asked if Russia still poses a threat to the U.S. 

 
 
 
ADVERTISEMENT
That comment undercut his own director of national intelligence, Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsGOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Experts report recent increase in Chinese group's cyberattacks Acting director of national intelligence begins hiring freeze: reports MORE, who said after Trump's Helsinki press conference that Russia's hostile activities against the U.S. and its allies are “ongoing.” 

Coats also underscored the intelligence agencies' worry that Russia is prepared to interfere with this fall's midterm elections. 

“We have been clear in our assessment of Russian meddling in our 2016 elections and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Coats said in a statement.

Trump's latest comments raised doubts about his commitment to combating Moscow's efforts to do so, a top concern of U.S. officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

Those fears were inflamed on Monday when Trump, standing beside Putin after their meetings, suggested he gave equal weight to the Russian leader's denial of election meddling and the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence agencies that the meddling occurred. 

“My people came to me ... they said they think it’s Russia. 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,” Trump said. 

The president's comments set off an international furor, which Trump sought to clean up on Tuesday by claiming he misspoke and meant to say, “I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia.”

The president also said he accepts the intelligence agencies' assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but raised doubts about his sincerity by adding that it “could be other people.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill pounced on Trump's latest comments, claiming they provide even more evidence that the president is too close to Putin. 

“Mr. President. Walk this back too,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition MORE (D-N.Y.) tweeted in response to Trump's claim that Russia is no longer targeting the U.S.

It was clear Wednesday that the negative media coverage of Trump's meeting with Putin has bothered him. 

Trump sat with his arms folded when speaking about the issue during the Cabinet meeting. When asked whether Russia is still targeting the U.S., the president indicated he did not want to answer by telling reporters "thank you" before quietly saying the word “no.”

The president also argued that his “very historic” trip to Europe, which included contentious meetings with NATO allies and British Prime Minister Theresa May, had been a “tremendous success.”

“We made tremendous progress toward achieving greater peace, prosperity and security for allies, in fact, for the entire world,” he said. 

He also sought to shift the focus onto different topics, saying the U.S. economy is “thriving and booming like never before” and previewing an administration announcement on a workforce development initiative with his daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpTrump says first lady tested negative for coronavirus Pence says he will be tested for coronavirus Rush, Trish and left-leaning media: Is it opinion or news reporting? MORE

Several GOP lawmakers and Trump allies have indicated the president's cleanup efforts satisfied their concerns, but many others have indicated they are not ready to move on. 

A bipartisan group of senators are readying legislation that would slap new sanctions on Moscow if Russia interferes in the 2018 midterm elections. 

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is calling Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCoronavirus response reveals deep fractures in global partnerships Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike COVID-19 intensifies the case for blacklisting Khalifa Haftar  MORE to testify before his panel next week to discuss Trump's meeting with Putin. 

--Updated at 1:47 p.m.