Donald Trump — under fire for not challenging Vladimir Putin on election meddling — claimed Wednesday that no president has been as “tough” on Russia as he has, but sparked new controversy by saying Russia was no longer targeting the United States.
When asked if Moscow, accused by US intelligence agencies of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, was still interfering, Trump said “no.”
That assertion appeared to be at odds with the assessment of US intelligence chief Dan Coats, who said Monday that Russia was involved in “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
The comment by the Republican leader — who is facing bipartisan criticism that he failed to hold the Russian leader to account at their Helsinki summit on Monday — seemed sure to fuel the flames of controversy.
“We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting at the White House.
“And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia,” he added.
“And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody,” Trump said. “Certainly a lot better than the media.
“He understands it, and he’s not happy about it,” Trump said. “And he shouldn’t be happy about it because there’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump insisted the summit had been a success, despite the uproar over his apparent acceptance of the Russian leader’s denial of election meddling.
Trump cited the “many positive things” he expects to come from the summit, where the two leaders met privately for about two hours with no one else present but their translators.
“While the NATO meeting in Brussels was an acknowledged triumph, with billions of dollars more being put up by member countries at a faster pace, the meeting with Russia may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success,” Trump tweeted ahead of the cabinet meeting.
“So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki,” Trump added.
“Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this,” he said. “It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!”
– ‘Double negative’ –
At their meeting in Finland, Trump seemed to accept at face value Putin’s denial that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election in a bid to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Faced with outrage at home, Trump sought to walk back his remarks Tuesday, saying he accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had meddled in the election.
He also offered a rambling explanation of his assertion that he could not see “any reason” why Russia would interfere, claiming he misspoke.
“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’,” Trump said.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” he added.
– NATO commitments in question? –
Even as he dialed down the rhetoric, he raised fresh questions about the US commitment to NATO’s central principle of mutual defense by offering a gibe about Montenegro, suggesting he would be displeased about having to defend the “tiny” new member if need be.
When Fox host Tucker Carlson asked Trump in an interview why his son should have to go to Montenegro to defend it from attack, Trump shared the sentiment.
“I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question,” Trump said.
“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people… They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Moscow has been accused of meddling in Montenegro’s elections, and a failed 2016 coup was allegedly planned by pro-Russian militants.
– ‘Damaging’ remarks –
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign has increasingly put pressure on the White House.
The president — who regards the probe as an attack on his legitimacy — has dubbed it a “witch hunt,” and again said Tuesday there was “no collusion at all.”
But the investigation is progressing, as evidenced by the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents on Friday — timing that was embarrassing ahead of the summit.
Trump found precious little support from either side of the political aisle for his decision not to confront the Russian leader.
Republican lawmakers have called for information on exactly what was discussed or negotiated in Helsinki.
Some Democrats including Senator Richard Blumenthal have urged Senate leaders to subpoena Trump’s translator and the notes from the summit, so that Congress can learn what was discussed.