President Donald Trump seems ready to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling in the U.S. election at face value. After meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Trump said he believes the Russian leader is being honest when he denies any involvement in last year’s presidential elections and went as far as to suggest that the intelligence conclusion that disagrees with that assessment amounts to a “hit job.”
“Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after the summit. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country,” Trump said. When asked directly if he believed Putin, Trump suggested he didn’t have much of a choice. And besides, there are lots of more important issues to worry about. “Look,” he said, “I can’t stand there and argue with him. I would rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I would rather … get to work with him on the Ukraine.”
Trump directly criticized the former heads of three U.S. intelligence agencies, suggesting that the work of former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and former FBI chief James Comey couldn’t be trusted. “I mean, give me a break — they’re political hacks,” Trump said. “You have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar, and he’s proven to be a leaker, so you look at that. And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.”
Plus, Trump said, he is just agreeing with what most people think anyway. “Everybody knows there was no collusion,” Trump said. “I think it’s a shame that something like this can destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries that are very important countries Russia could really help us.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, quickly criticized Trump for his apparent willingness to take Putin at his word. “The president fools no one. He understands that the Russians intervened through the hacking and dumping of his opponent’s emails, the fruits of which he exploited time and again on the campaign trail,” Schiff said in a statement. “Mr. Trump simply can’t bring himself to put America first.”
In his apparent disagreement with the intelligence assessment that concluded there was Russian meddling in the election, Trump is also at odds with his current CIA head. Retired Gen. Michael Hayden noted on Twitter that the CIA director continues to stand by the January 2017 assessment that concluded Moscow did meddle in the election. “So my question is,” Hayden writes, “which is the position of the US government? POTUS or CIA?”
Experts say the discrepancy between the president and the intelligence community is troubling. “I am disturbed that our president believes a KGB agent and continues to refuse to believe the CIA. I can never remember a time in our history when this was so. I hope Trump’s national security team will be more forceful in convincing the president of the basic facts of Russia’s violation of our sovereignty last year,” said Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University who was U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.