Threat Management, Threat Intelligence

CIA director stands by intel on Russian meddling after Trump defends Putin

After President Donald Trump met briefly with Russian President Vladmir Putin during an extended trip to Asia and reasserted his belief that Russia didn't meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, later slamming former members of the intelligence community, before seeming to walk back his comments, the CIA said Director Mike Pompeo stood behind intelligence reports that revealed clear evidence of interference. 

"The Director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections," CNN cited the CIA as saying in a statement. "The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed."

In an August 2016 report shrouded in secrecy the CIA revealed to former President Barack Obama and three top aides that Putin was directly involved in the cyber campaign meant to upend the U.S. presidential election by causing damage to Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump's bid for the White House. 

Trump's initial remarks came on a flight from Da Nang to Hanoi Saturday after brief meet-ups with Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, during which he claimed to have broached the subject of Russian tampering to influence the election. 

"He said he didn't meddle. He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times," Trump told reporters on the flight, according to CNN. "Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,'" Trump said, adding that continued contentions of collusion between his campaign and Russia could do real damage to the “important potential relationship” between the two countries. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election led in late October to indictments of former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and former Deputy Campaign Manager Rick Gates for crimes against the U.S. and money laundering.

Mueller also announced that the campaign's former foreign adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty October 5 to lying about his efforts to facilitate communications between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, in part to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton allegedly from hacked emails - months before it became public that Clinton campaign officials and the Democratic National Committee had been hacked. 

Papadopoulos, 30, has reached a plea deal with prosecutors. Court documents show that he communicated in the campaign, writing in an email to a more senior adviser in April 2016, “The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready.”

On the weekend flight Trump also lashed out at former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former FBI Director James Comey, who the president fired last spring.

"I mean, give me a break, they are political hacks. So you look at it, I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he is proven now to be a leaker,” the president said. “So you look at that and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with them."

Members of the intelligence community, lawmakers and critics responded quickly to Trump seemingly choosing Putin over U.S. intelligence with Clapper and Brennan appearing together on CNN to admonish Trump.

Saying that the president was “giving Putin a pass,” Brennan said “It's either naiveté, ignorance or fear in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-a-vis the Russians.”

Clapper, who contended China and Russia likely “think they can play” the president, reiterated that the threat from Russia "is manifest and obvious. To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and in fact, poses a peril to this country."

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a vocal critic of the president, tweeted that he was either not savvy in his dealings with the Russian leader “or Putin has something on Trump.”

By the next day, Trump seemed to walk back his previous remarks, noting “I am with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with the leadership,” but maintaining that "I believe that [Putin] feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.” 

Putin Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov denied the two leaders spoke of meddling, resounding with a simple “no” to a CNN reporter's query.

Trump also indicated that sanctions against Russia are hamstringing efforts between the two countries to solve pressing issues in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. 

"And you know, people don't realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned," said Trump. “They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently. It's now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken."

Russia was placed under heavy sanctions after its actions in Ukraine and before he left office Obama levied initial sanctions against the country after revelations about its interference in the U.S. election. In early August, just two days after Russian President Vladmir Putin sent 755 members of the U.S. diplomatic staff packing in retaliation for Congress-approved sanctions against Russia – enacted partly over the Kremlin's hacking campaign during the U.S. election – Trump signed a sanctions bill into law, though recent reports say those sanctions have yet to be rolled out by the administration.

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