White House seeks to clarify Trump criticism of 'Russia hoax'

Allies and aides for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE on Sunday sought to clarify the president's frequent attacks on what he refers to as the "Russia hoax," while attempting to pivot focus toward his efforts to combat Russian interference in future elections.

“The president, when he says 'Russia hoax,' he means the investigation and some others on TV, never under oath, wanting to suggest that somehow Russian meddling in the 2016 election was successful in changing a single vote or indeed the electoral outcome,” White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayThe Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world Conway: Kavanaugh accuser 'should not be ignored’ George Conway rips Trump over tweet about Obama's '57 states' gaffe MORE said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Conway and national security adviser John Bolton argued in separate Sunday show appearances that the president has a more narrow focus in mind when he repeatedly calls the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”


"The hoax is the idea that the Trump campaign was a beneficiary of a concerted effort together with the Russians to affect the 2016 election," Bolton said on "Fox News Sunday."

Both aides credited Trump with directly asking five of his top intelligence officials to attend a White House press briefing last week to detail their efforts to blunt foreign influence campaigns ahead of this year’s midterm elections. 

While White House proxies were consistent in their messaging on Sunday, there continues to be a rhetorical disparity between what the president says and what his advisers and aides say he means.

The president has tweeted about the Mueller probe or collusion roughly a dozen times in the last week alone, most notably escalating his attacks when he called on Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lands book deal MORE to end the special counsel’s investigation.

The New York Times reported that Mueller is examining Trump's tweets as part of an investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. Investigators are reportedly interested in the president's tweets as part of a larger pattern of behavior.

Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's attorneys in the Russia investigation, dismissed the concept of obstruction of justice by tweet as "absurd" on ABC's "This Week."

"Obstruction of justice by tweet is absurd," Sekulow told host George Stephanopoulos. "The president has a First Amendment right to put his opinions out there," echoing a number of Trump's allies this week who sought to dismiss the president's tweets as a matter of "opinion."

The White House last week attempted to shift the conversation toward what is being done to block future foreign influence campaigns. 

In an unusual move, the administration trotted out Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsDem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ Nunes: Russia probe documents should be released before election The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Cuomo wins and Manafort plea deal MORE, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenInvestigation into FEMA head referred to prosecutors: report Gowdy requests FEMA administrator’s travel records amid allegations The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil MORE, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone to detail their agencies' efforts to address election meddling.

"Everybody who participated in the press conference Thursday agreed, as has the president on several public occasions, that the intelligence community assessment of Russian meddling in 2016 is valid," Bolton said on Fox.

But Trump has, on numerous occasions, undercut his national security officials, referring to Russian interference in elections as the "Russia hoax." 

Trump also prompted widespread bipartisan backlash late last month during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he refused to raise the issue of election interference with the Russian president and appeared to cast doubt on U.S. intelligence officials' conclusion that Russia conspired to hack U.S. election systems. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) on Sunday urged Trump to be "straightforward with the American people" about Russian election interference. 

"The president should be straightforward with the American people about the threat to our election process, that Russia — Putin in particular — is engaged in," Royce said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"For years, we have watched Russian interference in trying to undermine our values, using weaponized information against the west, not just here in the United States but across the entirety of Europe," he said. "And as a consequence of those efforts and us not doing enough — not just this administration but the past administration not doing enough — we are in a position now that we have got to show Putin that he’ll have to pay a steep price if he doesn’t stop this now."

Trump acknowledged during a rally on Saturday that other countries are trying to interfere in U.S. elections, suggesting that China, Iran and North Korea could be responsible in addition to Russia.

The U.S. intelligence community has been unwavering in its conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign and continues to attempt to influence U.S. elections.

"There's no question that Russia was the principal violator in 2016 and that their activity this year puts them in the lead, although as people said, activity so far at least is down from 2016," Bolton said.

"But it does not exclude the potential for others to meddle," he added.

Shortly before Bolton appeared on Fox, the president again lashed out at Mueller. He, once again, called the investigation a "witch hunt," and questioned why there wasn't a probe into the FBI and Department of Justice.

"This is the most one sided Witch Hunt in the history of our country. Fortunately, the facts are all coming out, and fast!" the president tweeted.

Democrats argued that the gulf between the president's rhetoric and that of his administration could undermine any efforts to blunt Russian interference in the future.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly Russia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe MORE (D-Calif.) said on CBS that Trump's continued refusal to condemn Russia and Putin sends a signal that they won't be punished if they attempt to interfere in the midterms.

"It's the president himself who's created this very muddled message and the issue, I think, for us in the midterms is what message is Putin hearing?" Schiff said.

"Is he hearing the message that we heard from Coats and Wray and others in that press conference at the White House, or is hearing the message of the President of the United States?" he continued.

"And I fear that the message that the Kremlin cares most about is what they hear from Donald Trump and that is still one of denial and cover for the Russians."