UPDATE, 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time: In a statement to reporters Wednesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump was referring to requests for photos when he said “no” to a reporter who had asked if Russia was still targeting the United States, during a Cabinet meeting earlier in the day.
“Like I just said, we believe that the threat still exists which is why we are taking steps to prevent it. Again, you wouldn’t go through that lengthy process if you weren’t,” she said.
Sanders then confusingly blamed President Obama for not catching the ongoing Russian interference, saying it had happened during his administration. “Let’s not forget this didn’t happen under President Trump’s watch,” she said. “This happened under the Obama administration.”
EARLIER: President Trump claimed Russia was no longer targeting the United States or attempting to undermine the government during a meeting at the White House Wednesday. The statement directly contradicted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who said Monday that Russia still poses a serious threat to the country.
Asked by a reporter during a Cabinet meeting whether he believed Russia was still targeting critical U.S. systems, Trump responded with a flat “no,” before staffers ushered press from the room.
Is Russia still targeting the US? Trump says, "No." pic.twitter.com/L5ZY9DE4r1
— Meg Wagner (@megwagner) July 18, 2018
On Monday, Coats issued a starkly different assessment, defending the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia was engaged in an ongoing attempt to “undermine our democracy.”
“The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers,” he stated. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Coats issued an even more dire statement on the topic Friday, speaking before a crowd at a D.C.-based think tank.
“The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. It is why I believe we are at a critical point,” he said, before naming Russia as one of the “worst offenders” committing cyberattacks against the United States. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Coats then drew comparisons between the country’s current situation and the days leading up to 9/11. “It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, the system is blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again,” he said.
The president’s comment comes two days after he stood beside Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference in Helsinki, Finland and stated that he believed the Russian leader over his own intelligence officials, on the subject of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia [who meddled in the election]. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” he said. “I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he added, before thanking Putin for offering to “analyze” sensitive U.S. intelligence authorities had gathered on 12 Russian military intelligence officers, who allegedly hacked the DNC and DCC servers, and the email accounts of Hillary Clinton campaign staffers.
On Tuesday, facing a storm of criticism, Trump attempted to do damage control.
“I thought that I made myself very clear, but having just reviewed the transcript [from that press conference]…I realized that there is a need for some clarification,” Trump said, reading from a printed statement at the White House. “The sentence should have been…’I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.'”
He added that he “accept[ed] our American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” before subsequently destroying his own statement, saying, “Could be other people also, there’s a lot of people out there.”
A BIG discrepancy between President Trump’s statement and DNI Coates’ warning.
It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections.
My personal view: the Russians are at again.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 18, 2018
Lawmakers on all sides of the political spectrum have condemned Trump’s press conference statements in the past week, and on Wednesday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) issued a similarly critical view of the president’s most recent dismissal.
“A BIG discrepancy between President Trump’s statement and DNI Coates’ warning,” he tweeted. “It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections. My personal view: the Russians are at again.”