The president’s response openly and directly contradicts the repeated statements of his spy chief and other top national security officials — and raises the question of how seriously Trump believes the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.
For example, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, has warned Trump and the American people for months that Russia not only interfered in the 2016 election but also plans to do so again this year.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm US elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February. “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”
Coats hit this theme again just three days before Trump was scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
“The digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack” by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and other hostile foreign countries, Coats said at an event hosted by the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, DC. “The warning lights are blinking red again.”
Is Russia still targeting the US? Trump says, "No." pic.twitter.com/L5ZY9DE4r1— Meg Wagner (@megwagner) July 18, 2018
But in Finland, Trump sided with Putin over his intelligence chief after the Russian leader denied that his country meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.
“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, and 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 told reporters in Helsinki, where the summit took place.
That led Coats to publicly rebuke the president — a rare thing for a sitting intelligence official to do — by noting that the intelligence and law enforcement community, which in this case includes the CIA, FBI, and NSA, has “been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Twenty-four hours later, the president reversed course, haltingly asserting that he had “full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies” and that he “accepted” US intelligence’s findings that Russia was behind cyberattacks leading up to the election.
But now it seems Trump has changed his mind again.
When asked about Trump’s response during the White House press briefing hours later, press secretary Sarah Sanders claimed the president said “no” to answering questions, not to the question of whether or not Russia was still targeting America. “He does believe they would certainly target US elections again,” Sanders continued.
(But watch the video again: Trump first responds “no” to the original questions, “no” again when someone follows up on it, and then goes on to answer a whole other question. He clearly wasn’t trying to shoot down reporters’s inquiries.)
It’s yet another stunning moment in the president’s continuing battle against America’s spy agencies, which he once likened to Nazis because he believed they leaked information about him. Trump also spent part of his first full day in office at a memorial for the CIA’s fallen heroes attacking the media and lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
What’s more troubling is that no matter what they say or do, Coats and others can’t seem to get Trump to listen to them. But the fact that Putin — the head of the country responsible for continued attacks on the US — seems to have Trump’s ear is the scariest thing of all.