Contradicting U.S. intelligence agencies, President Donald Trump on Saturday said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Kremlin did not attempt to interfere in the 2016 election.
Trump spoke with the Russian leader this week in Vietnam during a joint summit with other Asia-Pacific countries. When a reporter asked if the subject of Russian election interference came up, Trump replied, “He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did. ... Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’”
Trump also took multiple shots at his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton and lamented that Putin is “very insulted” by the accusations of election meddling.
The president’s comments fly in the face of a report from U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year that concluded that Putin had ordered hacking against the Democratic National Committee as well as the deliberate spread of misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric about Clinton to help Trump get elected. The effort is the subject of multiple federal investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia at all, which the president has strongly denied.
Trump told reporters on Saturday that he was skeptical of the intelligence findings and spoke dismissively of several former top Obama officials with long careers in public service.
“You hear it’s 17 agencies [who agreed on the hacking]. Well, it’s three,” he said. “And one is [then-CIA Director John] Brennan. And one is, whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks. So you look at it, and then you have Brennan, you have [then-Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and you have [then-FBI Director James] Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker. So you look at that.”
In a statement to CNN on Saturday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo — a Trump appointee ― stood by the agency’s findings.
“The Director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” the agency said. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.”
It’s also worth noting that the number of intelligence agencies involved is four, not three: the CIA, the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. As The New York Times pointed out in July, it’s not problematic that the remaining agencies didn’t report similar findings because “not all 17 were involved in the assessment of Russian interference.”
Trump has largely refused to blame Putin for the hacking and even told reporters in July that he believes “other countries” besides Russia were involved. Early last month he missed a key deadline to implement new sanctions on Russia in response to the hacking, sanctions that were set forth in a bipartisan bill that he’d signed into law in August. Weeks later, Foreign Policy reported that the State Department had shuttered the office that deals with sanctions policy.
Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that some in Trump’s campaign had ties to the Kremlin. Last month, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, along with his business associate Rick Gates, was indicted by a grand jury in connection with the investigation. At the same time, it was revealed that a former Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty in early October to lying to FBI agents about his efforts to receive “dirt” on Clinton.
The story has been updated with additional comment from President Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.