Trump and His Administration Often Diverge on Blaming Russia
Posted March 16, 2018 8:02 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long avoided blaming — or even naming — Russia for meddling in the 2016 election that put him in office.
But his administration has been far tougher on Moscow for cyberattacks that officials this week said not only sought to sway political opinions, but also wormed into power plants, aviation systems and other critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe.
On Thursday, Trump was studiously silent as his administration imposed sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign and what officials called other “malicious cyberattacks.” (The president did agree with a British assessment that Moscow was responsible for a nerve-gas attack in England against a former Russian spy and his daughter.)
The Treasury Department said the sanctions were to punish “Russia’s continuing destabilizing activities.” And for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI directly accused Russia of committing cyberattacks against “energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors.”
Last week, by contrast, Trump said that “the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever.”
“But, certainly, there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals,” the president said at a March 6 news conference.
This pattern of diversion has steadily increased since Trump took office. Here is a look back at how the president and his own administration have parted ways on Russia.
February 2018: Deflecting accusations of Russian meddling
U.S. intelligence officials warned in mid-February that Russia had already begun meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. But Trump continued to suggest other countries could be the culprit.
“By the way, I have to say, Obama was the president during all of this meddling, or whatever you want to call it, with Russians and others possibly,” he said in a Feb. 24 interview on Fox News.
December 2017: Conflicting signals on national security
Trump’s first national security strategy blueprint made repeated references to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its “information operations as part of its offensive cyberefforts to influence public opinion across the globe.”
Yet in his speech announcing the strategy on Dec. 18, Trump made one fleeting mention of Russia: of how it and China “seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth.” He made no mention of Russian meddling and instead praised intelligence sharing between Russia and the United States in the face of terrorism threats.
August 2017: Signing a sanctions bill reluctantly
After Congress passed legislation in late July to impose sanctions on Russia and limit the president’s authority to lift them, Trump signed the bill but criticized it as “seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
Trump signed the legislation on Aug. 2. Several days earlier, President Vladimir Putin’s government had retaliated by seizing two U.S. diplomatic compounds in Russia and telling the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to reduce its staff across the country. Trump did not respond, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, declined to comment.
However, the State Department described Moscow’s move as “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”
“We are assessing the impact of such a limitation and how we will respond to it,” the department said in a statement.
July 2017: Suggesting he found Putin’s denial persuasive
After Trump met with Putin during a Group of 20 summit meeting, he recounted the Russian leader’s assurances that Moscow did not intervene in the 2016 election.
“First question — first 20, 25 minutes — I said, ‘Did you do it?’ He said, ‘No, I did not, absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time, in a totally different way. He said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Trump said in an interview with Reuters that was published July 12. “Somebody did say if he did do it, you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.”
January 2017: Playing down Russian cyberattacks
On Jan. 6, the intelligence community released a declassified report of its conclusions about a Russian cyberattack on the election. In a statement about his briefing on the cyberattacks that day, Trump pointed to “Russia, China, other countries.”
Days before his inauguration, at a Jan. 11 news conference where he was asked whether he believed Putin ordered the hacking of American political committees, Trump said that “as far as hacking, I think it was Russia.”
He then added, “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
Trump’s dismissiveness of accusations of Russian interference predates his time in the White House.
Late December 2016: Praising Putin in the wake of sanctions
On Dec. 29, President Barack Obama issued sanctions against Russia and ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operators from the United States as punishment for Moscow’s attempts to influence the election. But in a move widely believed to be aimed at fostering good relations with the incoming Trump administration, Putin announced on Dec. 30 that he would not retaliate.
Trump promptly praised Putin’s decision.
A day later, Trump said he still wasn’t convinced that Russia had interfered in the election, telling reporters: “And I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else.”
Early December 2016: Disparaging intelligence agencies after reports on Russian interference
After reports in December by the The New York Times and The Washington Post that U.S. intelligence assessments had concluded that Russian election meddling sought to aid Trump, the president-elect disagreed.
In an unsigned statement responding to the news, the Trump transition team dismissed the assessment by comparing it to flawed intelligence reports in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said.
October 2016: Questioning intelligence consensus that Russia is to blame
On Oct. 7, the U.S. intelligence community released a joint public statement saying it was “confident that the Russian government” had directed cyberattacks on American individuals and institutions, including political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee.
Three days after that, during the second presidential debate, Trump again cast doubt that Russia was responsible — or even that there was a cyberattack in the first place.
“Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia,” he said.
September 2016: Continuing to cast doubt on Russian meddling
As the official nominees of their parties, Trump and Hillary Clinton began receiving intelligence reports in early August. On Sept. 22, top Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees issued a statement saying they had “concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” based on briefings they had received.
Four days later, during the first presidential debate, Trump said, “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC.”
He continued: “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
June 2016: Rejecting the DNC claim that Russian hackers penetrated its files
The Democratic National Committee and a cybersecurity firm said Russian hackers had obtained a trove of internal campaign emails and political opposition research.
In response, Trump suggested that the DNC fabricated the story or hacked itself: “We believe it was the DNC that did the ‘hacking’ as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader,” he said in a campaign statement on June 15.
He did not mention Russia.