The issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election followed President Donald Trump on his 12-day trip through five Asian nations.
On Saturday, when asked whether it came up during his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One, “He said he didn’t meddle; he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
Trump went on to say, “That whole thing was set up by the Democrats” — slamming former United States intelligence leaders, including former CIA chief John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“They're political hacks. So you look at it, and then you have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have (James) Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker,” he said on route to Hanoi, referring to the FBI's former director, who was fired early in Trump’s presidency amid much controversy.
“So you look at that. And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that,” Trump said.
The remarks drew rebuke from former U.S. intelligence officials and top U.S. lawmakers, including former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.
“There’s nothing ‘America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community ... Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk,” McCain said in a statement.
Clapper told the Reuters news agency, “The fact the president of the United States would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable.”
On Sunday, Trump said he was surprised by the criticism and tried to clarify his remarks on Putin, when questioned by reporters during a press conference in Hanoi.
“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said. “As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies. I've worked with them very strongly.”
US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling
Current U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment on Trump’s remarks Saturday, but continue to stand by the community’s January 2017 assessment, which determined that Putin had “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election."
The document said the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency, agree that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting (Democratic presidential candidate and former) Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
A U.S. intelligence official told VOA there has been no change to the assessment about Russia’s efforts to influence last year's election.
During the Aspen Security Forum in July, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said of Russia, “They’re trying to undermine Western democracy,” noting Moscow’s influence efforts are “quite a bit more sophisticated than they used to be.”
At the same forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo was asked whether Russia intervened in the 2016 election.
“I have been asked it a million times; it is true, yeah of course. And the one before that, and the one before that,” Pompeo said. “They (Russia) have been at this a hell of a long time. And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”
Last month at the FDD’s (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) National Security Summit in Washington, the CIA director was criticized for saying U.S. intelligence agencies had determined that Russian meddling did not sway the election.
When asked by a reporter if he could say with absolute certainty that the election results were not skewed as a result of Russian interference, Pompeo said, “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”
The issue is that the intelligence community never made an assessment of how Russian meddling, including the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers and subsequent dissemination of emails from key staffers, may have affected the election.
The January document noted, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The U.S. intelligence committee is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.”
Recently, U.S. lawmakers questioned representatives of tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google about Russia's use of their social media platforms to spread disinformation during last year’s presidential campaign.
Twitter says it was able to identify around 36,000 automated “bot” accounts that could be linked to Russia.
The Russian meddling campaign on Facebook comprised approximately $100,000 spent by “fake accounts associated with the IRA” on 3,000 ads between June 2015 and August 2017, according to Facebook lawyer Colin Stretch. The Internet Research Agency has been described as a Russian troll farm.
VOA' s National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.