Two of the country’s highest ranking former intelligence officials took President Donald Trump to task on Sunday for his continued refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, a stance that they say puts the United States in danger.
“Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union. “And to try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country.”
Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan were responding to comments Trump made on Saturday during his five-nation tour of Asia. Trump criticized multiple congressional and special investigations underway into Russia’s interference, claimed that his campaign did not collude with the Russians, and suggested that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t interfere in the 2016 election despite findings to the contrary by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“Every time he [Putin] 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.’ I think he is very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Vietnam. “Don’t forget, all he said is he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he’s very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
While giving credence to Putin’s denials of involvement, Trump simultaneously insinuated that there is doubt about the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, which have, in fact, determined conclusively that Russia meddled in the elections.
“And then you hear it’s 17 agencies. Well, it’s three. And one is Brennan and one is whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks. So you look at it — I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker,” Trump told the reporters on Air Force One, referring to former FBI Director James Comey whom he fired last May. Trump later told NBC News that the Russia probe was part of his rationale for firing Comey.
Brennan told CNN on Sunday that it’s clear the Russians interfered in the U.S. election based on U.S. counter intelligence findings made available to Trump, making it all the more puzzling as to why the president doesn’t acknowledge that and counter Putin’s denials.
“The Russian threat to our democracy and our democratic foundations is real. And I think his [Trump] continuing to not say very clearly and strongly that this is a national security problem and to say to Mr. Putin, we know you did it, you have to stop it, because there are going to be consequences if you don’t,” said Brennan.
Trump’s attacks on Clapper, Comey and Brennan as “political hacks” are part of his effort to delegitimize the intelligence community’s assessment, said Brennan. He noted that contrary to what Trump insinuated, the assessment was not compiled by Comey, Clapper nor Brennan.
Brennan told CNN that he found it “particularly reprehensible” that on Veterans Day Trump would attack the integrity of a veteran such as Clapper, a retired lieutenant general in the United States Air Force who served in combat support missions in Vietnam.
“And like Sen. [John] McCain, [he] really did put his life at risk because of this country’s national security,” said Brennan. “And to impugn the character of somebody like Jim Clapper — on Veterans Day — who has dedicated so much of his life to this country, I just find that outrageous, and it’s something I think that Mr. Trump should be ashamed of.”
Trump tried to walk his comments back on Sunday in Vietnam, telling reporters there that he agrees with the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russia’s interference in the elections.
“I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership,” Trump said during the news conference held jointly with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang.
But Trump had already relayed Putin’s reaction to the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions on Russian interference, CNN’s Tapper pointed out Sunday, and further noted that the Russian president was insulted by this conclusion. Brennan responded that Trump’s behavior sends a disturbing signal to America’s allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.
“I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump’s interest in being flattered. And also I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations. So it’s very worrisome,” said Brennan. “So it’s either naïveté, ignorance or fear, in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-a-vis the Russians.”
Trump’s refusal to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s interference in the election baffled Clapper, who noted that the evidence presented by the U.S intelligence community in January reinforced “the depth and magnitude and scope and the aggressiveness of the Russian interference.”
“I don’t know why the ambiguity about this, because the threat posed by Russia, as John just said, is manifest and obvious and has been for a long time,” said Clapper.
Clapper acknowledged the detrimental effect of Trump’s continued attacks on the U.S. intelligence community, but he said the intelligence community would forge ahead regardless.
“I do believe in my heart that the men and women of the intelligence community will continue to convey truth to power, even if the power ignores the truth,” said Clapper.