WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said he sees no reason why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 election. Minutes earlier, on the same platform, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a reason, even while denying Moscow ever meddled: He wanted Trump to win.
A sampling of their statements Monday:
TRUMP on his intelligence officials: “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this — I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
THE FACTS: Trump is a nearly solitary figure in his administration in holding on to doubts about whether Russians tried to sway the election. Trump’s top national security officials, Democrats and most Republicans in Congress say U.S. intelligence agencies got it right in finding that Russians secretly tried to sway the election. The special counsel’s continuing Russia investigation has laid out a detailed trail of attempts and successes by Russians to steal Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign communications and to leak embarrassing emails and documents.
What is less established is the extent to which the Russian government, not just Russian citizens with varying ties to Moscow, became involved in this effort.
Special counsel Robert Mueller shed light on that question last week with an indictment against 12 Russian military intelligence officers, alleging a sweeping conspiracy to interfere in the election. The charges were the first to tie such alleged criminal behavior directly to the Kremlin.
Before that, Mueller brought charges against 13 Russians and three companies accused in a social media campaign to sway U.S. public opinion in 2016.
Putin denied anew that the Russian government interfered, regardless of what nongovernmental Russian actors might have done. But he was open about how he wanted the election to turn out. “Yes, I wanted him to win because he spoke of normalization of Russian-U.S. ties,” he said at the news conference, acknowledging a preference that is widely suspected in Washington.
But Trump did not see that motive in play. He made the untenable assertion that “I have confidence in both parties” — his intelligence officials, who say Moscow interfered, and Putin, who says it didn’t. And he appeared to lean toward Putin on the matter, saying: “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Afterward, Trump’s national intelligence director, Dan Coats, restated the consensus of U.S. intelligence: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
TRUMP on a Democratic National Committee server: “You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. … I’ve been wondering that, I’ve been asking that for months and months, and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?”
THE FACTS: Trump’s focus on a DNC server may or may not be a red herring. He is right that the committee did not turn its communications system over to the FBI as the agency investigated Russian hacking. It’s not at all clear that it matters.
As FBI chief, James Comey told Congress last year that although the DNC never directly gave the FBI access to its machines, the organization did hire a private cybersecurity firm that “ultimately shared with us their forensics from their review of the system.” He told lawmakers that while “best practice is always to get access to the machines themselves,” his colleagues at the FBI told him this solution was an “appropriate substitute.”
A detailed indictment Friday against 12 Russian military intelligence officers suggests that Mueller felt he got the information needed to construct the case without the FBI having direct access to DNC equipment.
The indictment alleges the officers hacked into Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic Party and stole and released tens of thousands of private communications.
Associated Press writers Chad Day and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.