Top administration and intelligence officials are struggling to convey the gravity of the threat posed by Russia’s election meddling to President Donald Trump, who has been reluctant to accept the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy, CNN reported on Wednesday.
Trump in recent days has sought to shift the blame to President Barack Obama for failing to nip Russia’s interference campaign in the bud, tweeting that “the Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia” and “did nothing about it.”
But some now say the Trump administration has not sought to punish Moscow in any meaningful way, either.
“We haven’t done anything,” Republican Sen. John McCain, a Russia hawk, told CNN on Tuesday. “We passed a bill through the Senate, and it’s hung up in the House. Tell me what we’ve done?”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement that “the United States continues to combat on a regular basis malicious cyber activity, and will continue to do so without bragging to the media or defending itself against unfair media criticism.” He pointed to the fact that the administration has kept existing sanctions in place, according to CNN.
But the White House is pushing back on new legislation passed earlier this month by the Senate that would levy new sanctions on Russia and Iran and prevent the president from easing Russian sanctions without congressional approval. And the administration is reportedly in talks with the Russians to return the diplomatic compounds Obama ordered evacuated in December in retaliation for the election meddling.
National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers told lawmakers in a recent closed-door briefing that he was struggling to convince Trump to accept the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s interference, according to CNN. And Trump reportedly doesn’t seem willing or able to differentiate between the investigation into Moscow’s attempts to influence the election and the probe into whether any collusion occurred between his associates and Russian officials. He also reportedly resents the amount of attention being paid to the Russia probe.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Trump asked Rogers and the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to say publicly that he was not a subject of the FBI’s probe into Russia’s election interference, and that no collusion occurred between his campaign and Moscow.
Trump still receives briefings on new information about the Russian attack when it comes to light, according to CNN, and he “appears no less engaged on issues surrounding Russian election meddling than on any other matters covered in the presidential daily brief.”
‘Why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?’
Rogers is not the only top intelligence official to have expressed surprise that Trump was not taking the Russia threat more seriously.
Former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in testimony earlier this month that Trump never once asked him about Russia’s interference in the US election as it related to national security in their nine conversations before he fired Comey in early May.
“Did the president, in any of those interactions that you’ve shared with us today, ask you what you should be doing, or what our government should be doing, or the intelligence community, to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Comey.
“I don’t recall a conversation like that,” Comey said.
Heinrich pressed: “Never?”
“No,” Comey said. “Not with President Trump. I attended a fair number of meetings on that with President Obama.”
Comey later said he didn’t recall ever having a conversation with Trump that suggested the president was taking the Russia threat seriously.
“I don’t remember any conversations with him at all about that,” Comey said.
Comey’s testimony suggested Trump seemed concerned only with how the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference affected him personally, rather than what the investigation was uncovering about Moscow’s disinformation and hacking campaigns throughout 2016 and whether it was poised to do it again. It aligns with Trump’s reaction after an initial briefing in January from top intelligence officials about Russian meddling.
Days before the briefing, the US intelligence community published an unclassified report concluding that Russia had interfered in the election to try to hurt then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump win. Obama and Trump, then the president-elect, were briefed on the classified version of that report, along with another unverified document: the dossier containing explosive and at times salacious claims about Trump’s ties to Russia.
But Trump’s initial approach to the burgeoning controversy centered on blasting reporting on the dossier as “fake news” and refusing to accept Russia’s role in the election meddling.
“Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans — FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted on January 13, apparently referring to the dossier. “Russia says nothing exists.”
Trump also did not broach the topic of Russian aggression in closed-door meetings with world leaders at the headquarters of NATO, the defence organisation founded in 1949 as Europe’s answer to the Soviet Union that continues to serve as a counterweight to Russia’s ambitions in eastern Europe.
The White House has also reportedly twice looked into lifting the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in 2014 and late 2016 — over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and election-related meddling, respectively — since Trump took office.
“The war is in the shadows. And, right now, Russia is winning,” Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare, wrote on Sunday. “There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?”
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