US top spy calls out Donald Trump on Russia meddling in US election

The head of US intelligence publicly questioned President Donald Trump’s attempted equivalency on the issue by siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “powerful” denials in Helsinki.

world Updated: Jul 17, 2018 10:03 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
US intelligence chief,Donald Trump,Russia meddling
US First Lady Melania Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and US President Donald Trump, pose with a soccer ball after a press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.(AP File Photo)

The head of US intelligence on Monday reiterated Russia interfered in the presidential elections in 2016 publicly questioning President Donald Trump’s attempted equivalency on the issue by siding with President Vladimir Putin’s “powerful” denials at their joint news briefing in Helsinki.

“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,” Daniel R Coats, director of National Intelligence (DNI), a Trump nominee, said in a statement.

The DNI serves as the head of the US intelligence community and is the principal adviser to the president, the national security council and the department of homeland security on intelligence pertaining to national security.

Trump was under pressure to raise it with Putin at the summit and he did, but as before he was seen to be only too willing to accept the Russian president’s denials.

“All I can do is ask (Putin) the question,” he said at the joint news conference with the Russian president.

Coats’s public rebuke caught the president’s attention and he tried to walk back his remarks in a tweet, presumably from Air Force One as it cruised home over the Atlantic.

“As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!” Trump said.

That wasn’t all of what he had actually said.

“My people came to me -- Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” the US president said when asked who would he believe on Russian meddling — US intelligence or Putin who has denied it.

“So 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.”

That equivalency was widely seen in the United States, by both allies and critics, as Trump siding with Putin against his own intelligence agencies. And it was enough for Coats to issue a statement and reiterate the intelligence assessment released by his office in January 2017, just days before Trump took over as president.

It had said clearly the Russian president “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”. And the goal was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency”.

“We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments,” it had said.

Coats had played no role in the preparation of that assessment and was a Republican senator at the time. He was picked by Trump as his top spy months later.

But former CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee whose department had contributed to the preparation of that assessment, reacted angrily to President Trump’s equivalence calling his remarks “treasonous” and “imbecilic”.

That Russia meddled in the 2016 election, since President Trump took office, has been echoed by all the people he has nominated to head those agencies — DNI Coats, FBI director Christopher Wray, present and past CIA directors Gina Haspel and Mike Pompeo to name some of them.

Trump is on board as well but reluctantly. Meddling is closely tied for most Americans, and chiefly Trump, to the question of collusion by his campaign, which is being investigated by special counsel Robert Muller, and which the president has pushed back against aggressively. He sees it as an attempt to delegitimize his election.

Mueller’s team has charged Russian individuals’ and entities’ involvement, and obtained indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officials last week of hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee and a member of Clinton’s campaign. The stolen documents were allegedly released through WikiLeaks and DCLeaks.

First Published: Jul 17, 2018 09:43 IST