WASHINGTON, U.S. - U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to definitively affirm Russian meddling in the 2016 election has caused many within the country to question him.
On Sunday, two former top U.S. intelligence officials denounced Trump’s statements made after his recent meeting with the Russian President, saying the president is being manipulated by Vladimir Putin.
Former CIA Director John Brennan said, “I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump’s interest in being flattered.”
Brennan added, “By not confronting the issue directly, and not acknowledging to Putin that we know that you’re responsible for this, I think he’s giving Putin a pass. And I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and to try to play upon his insecurities, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint.”
Meanwhile, James Clapper, former director of national intelligence warned that Trump’s downplaying of Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election “poses a peril to this country.”
Throughout his year in presidency, Trump has repeatedly questioned the conclusion of top intelligence agencies that Russia conducted a sophisticated effort to tip last year’s election in Trump’s favor.
Trump has also shown a fondness for Putin, and his campaign continues to face multiple investigations into whether it colluded with Russia.
On Saturday, Trump reignited the controversy, when reporters asked if he discussed Russian interference with Putin while meeting at the Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam.
Following a meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi, Trump said, "[Putin] said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”
When reporters questioned him about whether he believed Putin, Trump suggested he was keen to move on to other issues.
He said, “Look. I can't stand there and argue with him. I'd rather have him get out of Syria, I would rather get to work with him on the Ukraine."
Later, circling back to the meddling claims, Trump said that Putin has repeatedly told him, "'I didn't do that.' And I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
The American President added that he thinks Putin "is very insulted by" reports that the Kremlin did, in fact, interfere in U.S. elections last year and that this is "not a good thing for our country."
On Saturday, attacking Brennan and Clapper as “political hacks,” Trump said he sided with Putin’s denials over the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies.
Trump told reporters on Saturday, “He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did. 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. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’”
Later, attempting to soften those comments, Trump claimed, “I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
Brennan said in response that Trump is perhaps being manipulated by Putin.
He said, “I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump’s interest in being flattered. And, also, I think Mr. Trump is, for whatever reason, either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do, or what might come out as a result of these investigations. So, it’s very worrisome. And I think it sends a worrisome, very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well. So, it’s either naivete, ignorance or fear, in terms of what Mr. Trump is doing vis-a-vis the Russians.”
Commenting on the investigations into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, Brennan only said that he had spoken to investigators.
Before he stepped down from his post, Clapper said in January that he could not conclude whether Trump’s campaign colluded.
Clapper said on Sunday that when he made that remark he didn’t know of recent disclosures, including details of a meeting where a Russian lawyer offered Trump’s eldest son “information that would incriminate” Democrat Hillary Clinton, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos telling investigators he worked to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from the Russian government.
Clapper said, “The statement I made at the time was true. I had no direct evidence of collusion.”
At the time, he added, “we had lots of concerns, because we were aware of multiple meetings that were going on.”
He added that the new information “raises, I think, circumstantial questions, if nothing else.”
Meanwhile, reacting to the concerns raised by Clapper and Brennan, Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, dismissed the comments and downplayed the issue of Russian interference.
Mnuchin said, “President Trump is not getting played by anybody. President Trump was focused on some very important issues, which are North Korea and Syria. And those are areas that we need to work together with Russia and get them on board with our strategy. I think the country is ready to move on off of this and focus on important issues.”