President Donald Trump still isn’t buying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Even as his intelligence chiefs unanimously told a Senate panel Tuesday that Russia meddled in 2016 and is planning to do so again in 2018, three sources familiar with the President’s thinking say he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered in the presidential election.
While this issue is separate from the question of whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russian officials, to Trump the issues are interwoven, the sources say. He views the notion that Russia meddled in the election as an argument that he had help to win, and that he didn’t win the election on his own.
Trump’s view contradicts his intelligence chiefs, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Chris Wray, who all testified – again – on Tuesday that they supported the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Coats said at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats.
Trump has been skeptical about the intelligence assessment that Russia meddled ever since he was first briefed on the issue during the presidential transition. But that skepticism has endured even after Trump hand-selected his own intel chiefs and they reiterated the conclusions of their predecessors.
Trump has only begrudgingly acknowledged that Russia may have interfered in the election. In a press conference as president-elect, Trump said, “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” At a June 2017 press conference in Poland, he again said Russia meddled in the election, but added that “other people and other countries” likely did as well.
More often, Trump has cast doubt on accusations of Russian meddling. He has questioned whether the Russians were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee, and he has called the entire “Russia story” a hoax perpetuated by angry Democrats. He even convinced Pompeo to personally meet with a conspiracy theorist who denies that Russia hacked the DNC.
Trump caused a stir during his trip to Asia when he suggested that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials that his government meddled in the election. Trump and Putin met several times on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
But members of Trump’s cabinet have bucked Trump and sided with the intelligence community including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who said in October: “When a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare.”
Tuesday’s hearing was the latest opportunity for Democrats to pounce on the conflicting messages coming from the intelligence chiefs and their commander in chief. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, urged the intelligence officials to convince Trump that the issue of collusion was separate from election meddling.
“I understand the President’s sensitivity about whether his campaign was in connections with the Russians, and that’s a separate question. But there is no question – we’ve got before us the entire intelligence community, that the Russians interfered in the election in 2016 – they’re continuing to do it, and they’re a real imminent threat to our elections in a matter of eight or nine months,” King said.
“My problem is I talk to people in Maine who say the whole thing is a witch hunt and a hoax because ‘the President told me’,” he added.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked whether the steps the intelligence community was taking to counteract Russia’s election interference efforts had been directed by Trump.
“Not specifically directed by the President,” Wray said.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed reporting