Is Russia targeting US? Trump says no, but Huckabee says he really meant ‘no questions’, in another whiplash reversal
US intelligence officials have said Russian election interference efforts continue and now target the November midterms
One day after walking back his remarks over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, US President Donald Trump created more confusion on Wednesday when he apparently told journalists that he did not believe Russia was targeting America with further hacks – only for another clarification to be issued hours later.
Following a meeting with his Cabinet, Trump was asked by a reporter: “Is Russia still targeting the US, Mr President?” Trump appeared to respond: “Thank you. No.”
In a news briefing later on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “The president … was saying ‘No’ to answering questions … The president and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle in our elections as they have done in the past.”
However Trump continued to speak on the subject well after his “no”, as reporters continued to ask questions.
WATCH: At conclusion of Cabinet meeting, reporter asks: Is Russia still targeting the U.S.?
President Trump: "Thank you very much. No." pic.twitter.com/ZccJmhzVIY
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) July 18, 2018
Getting a lot of questions about my exchange with @realDonaldTrump today.
Yes, he was looking directly at me when he spoke.
Yes, I believe he heard me clearly. He answered two of my questions.
Here’s the full exchange: pic.twitter.com/F3QmDSFzpT
— Cecilia Vega (@CeciliaVega) July 18, 2018
“We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday after his controversial remark “And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia.”
If Trump does not actually believe that Russia is targeting the US electoral system, he stands in stark contrast to prominent US intelligence officials.
They have said Russian efforts to interfere with the voting are continuing and now target the upcoming congressional elections in November.
On Tuesday Trump tried to walk back comments that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin over American intelligence chiefs on Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying that he had misspoken a day earlier after a summit meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
Trump has been scrambling to undo the damage from his Monday comments, in which he gave credence to Putin’s denials over the conclusions of American intelligence services.
US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a congressional committee in February that he already had seen evidence that Russia was the November midterms, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.
In rebutting Trump’s dismissive comments about US intelligence on Monday, Coats said in a statement, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Coats last week compared warning signs of cyberattacks by Russia to intelligence rumblings before the September 11, terrorist attacks.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has also said that Russia has not been deterred from continuing its campaign of hacking and disinformation that helped scramble the presidential race two years ago.
“We are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself,” he said.
The day after Coats issued his warning, Trump expressed his doubts in an interview with CBS Evening News.
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” he said. “I’d have to look.”
The White House did not seek to clarify that remark. But when Trump’s answer on Wednesday immediately spawned a new round of news reports suggesting a president at odds with his intelligence advisers, and partial to Russia, the White House was forced to restart damage control efforts that began after his widely panned performance in Helsinki.
Cecilia Vega, the ABC reporter who asked the question, said on Twitter, “Getting a lot of questions about my exchange” with Trump. “Yes, he was looking directly at me when he spoke. Yes, I believe he heard me clearly. He answered two of my questions.”
After Trump’s initial response to her, Vega immediately followed by asking, to clarify, “No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”
“No,” Trump replied again, twice.
Similarly, the White House pool report distributed to media outlets broadly said Trump was answering Vega, not indicating that he didn’t want to take questions. “Your pooler stands by that report,” the correspondent wrote in a subsequent pool report, after Sanders’ briefing.
The latest episode threatened to undo Trump’s already tepid efforts to tamp down the bipartisan furore over his performance in Helsinki.
During a joint news conference alongside the Russian president, Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denials over the conclusions of US intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign. He also declined to publicly warn Putin not to attempt similar tactics in the future, while blaming the United States for bad relations with Moscow.
On Tuesday, after returning to Washington and facing the resulting uproar, Trump partially reversed himself, saying he misspoke – that when he dais he saw no reason why Russia would interfere in US elections, he actually meant “wouldn’t”.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse