WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Russia is no longer targeting the United States, contradicting his top intelligence adviser’s warning days ago that “the lights are blinking red” about cyberattacks and reigniting bipartisan concern over his recent embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The president’s flat “no” came in response to a reporter’s question about Russian threats posed during a White House meeting with the Cabinet. Two hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was saying “no” only to answering any more questions, a contention denied by the reporter and others in the room.
“Is Russia still targeting the U. S.?” the reporter asked as a small group of journalists was leaving the meeting.
“No,” Trump responded, looking directly at the questioner. He went on to say, “We are doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia.”
The president’s apparent denial of an ongoing threat from Russia contradicted his chief intelligence adviser, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who on Friday compared warning signs of cyberattacks by Russia and others to intelligence rumblings before the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 seen in the 2016 election.
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The day after Coats issued his warning, Trump expressed 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 restarted damage control efforts that began after his widely panned performance Monday at a summit with Putin in Helsinki.
After Sanders told reporters at a White House briefing that Trump was not denying that Russia is targeting the United States, but merely ruling out answering any questions, reporters who were there disputed it.
Cecilia Vega, the ABC News 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 that is distributed to media outlets broadly said Trump indeed was answering Vega. “Your pooler stands by that report,” the correspondent wrote.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., introduced a resolution Wednesday supporting both the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian meddling and intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia sought to undermine the presidential race.
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“After the president’s actions over the past week, it’s important for the Senate to speak in a clear, bipartisan voice to say that we stand with and believe our Department of Justice and our intelligence community and that we will not tolerate future attacks from Russia or anyone else on our democracy,” Coons said in a statement.
The White House’s cleanup efforts continued later as Trump sat for an interview with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor.
Though Trump had not criticized Putin in public comments since their Helsinki meeting, he told Glor he holds the Russian leader responsible for interfering “because he’s in charge of the country.”
Trump said he told Putin during their private meeting that “we can’t have meddling.”
“I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Trump said.
That assertion cannot be confirmed because Trump insisted on meeting Putin alone, with only translators present.