WHITE HOUSE - Another day of did he or didn’t he?
There is confusion at the White House about whether President Donald Trump again contradicted conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.
During a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the president shook his head and said, “Thank you very much, no” when asked if Russia still poses a threat to the United States.
Hours later, in the briefing room, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained that Trump actually was “saying 'no' to answering questions” and not to the reporter’s question itself.”
“He does believe that they would target certainly U.S. election,” she added.
Pressed about the president’s remark, Sanders explained: “I’m interpreting what the president said. I’m not reversing it.”
Many of the reporters clearly remained unsatisfied with the clarification. Some of those who were in the Cabinet Room publicly said they clearly understood that the president was tersely answering the question posed by Cecilia Vega of ABC News, who was representing the television networks in the typical pooling coverage arrangement.
When Trump returned to the White House South Lawn shortly after Sanders’ remark, VOA and others in that pool attempted to get the president to clarify.
Holding hands with first lady Melania Trump after stepping off of Marine One, Trump looked at reporters and waved, but he did not answer the questions.
However, Trump, in a broadcast aired Wednesday, told the “CBS Evening News” it is “true” Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and he “would” hold Russian President Vladimir Putin responsible for interference “because he’s in charge of the country.”
The director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, last week said that Russia and other countries are continuing to target American businesses, the government and other institutions.
“The warning lights are blinking red,” Coats said, characterizing Russia’s aggression as persistent and pervasive, and that Moscow’s aggression is “meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham immediately cited the apparent gap between Trump’s and Coats’ views of Russia. The member of the armed services subcommittee on cyber-security, tweeted: “A BIG discrepancy between President Trump’s statement and DNI Coates’ warning. It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections. My personal view: the Russians are at (it) again.”
Another Republican, Susan Collins, who is a member of the Senate’s intelligence committee, tweeted: “The Russians continue efforts to undermine Western democracies, including ours. The President is wrong and needs to heed the warnings from our Intelligence Community, including DNI Dan Coats.”
A more concise reaction to the president came from a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden tweeted: “OMG. OMG. OMG.” (Repeating the acronym for “Oh my God”).
During the day’s earlier exchange with reporters in the Cabinet Room, the president asserted, “There’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.”
Trump said he thinks Russian “President [Vladimir] Putin knows that better than anybody,” adding that the Russian leader is “not happy about it.”
The U.S. president has faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers of both parties, retired high-level intelligence officials and diplomats for his performance at Monday’s news conference in Helsinki following his meeting with Putin.
Alongside the Russian leader, Trump said he rejected the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election that he won.
In a rare walkback, Trump said on Tuesday he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the presidential election he won.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.
But he then made an apparently unscripted addition: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there” — an assessment of the possibility that other countries tried to interfere in the U.S. election, which was not part of the intelligence community's finding.
On Twitter Wednesday, Trump continued to boast about his summit with Putin, saying critics of his performance in Helsinki were suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
Trump also tweeted: "Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this.”
In another tweet he said, “So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well, which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!”
Sanders told reporters that Trump’s extended face-to-face conversation with Putin, which appeared to last for more than two hours, covered a wide range of issues of concern to both countries, and that the president did raise the issue of election meddling.
Asked whether a recording was made of the conversation, for which only the presidents and their translators were present, Sanders replied, “I’m not aware of one.”
A number of Democratic lawmakers are requesting congressional committees subpoena Trump”s interpreter to answer questions. She has been identified in media reports as State Department veteran interpreter Marina Gross.
The White House press secretary was asked on Wednesday whether the administration would agree to such testimony.
“That’s something that would go through the State Department,” Sanders responded.