WARSAW, Poland — On the eve of his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump questioned the veracity of American intelligence about foreign meddling in the U.S. election, arguing Thursday that Russia wasn’t the only country that may have interfered.
“Nobody really knows for sure,” Trump said.
Opening his second overseas trip as president, Trump also warned North Korea that he’s considering “some pretty severe things” in response to the isolated nation’s unprecedented launch of a missile capable of reaching the U.S. Though he declined to offer specifics on the U.S. response, Trump called on all nations to confront the North’s “very, very bad behavior.”
As U.S. investigations into Russia’s meddling forge ahead, Trump is under intense scrutiny for how he handles his first face-to-face session with Putin. U.S. intelligence officials say the unpredictable Russia leader ordered interference into the 2016 election that brought Trump to the White House.
Trump and Putin plan to sit down on Friday in Hamburg, Germany, on the sidelines of an international summit.
Loathe to cast a shadow on his election victory, Trump has avoided firmly blaming Moscow for campaign hacking in the past, and on Thursday, he was similarly elusive. He argued variably that it could have been Russia, probably was Russia and indeed was Russia, while insisting it could have been other countries, too, and adding: “I won’t be specific.”
“A lot of people interfere. It’s been happening for a long time,” Trump said in Poland. Asked specifically whether he planned to discuss the issue with Putin, Trump demurred.
The president sought to redirect scrutiny toward his predecessor, Barack Obama, accusing him of allowing Moscow to meddle on his watch. Though the Obama administration warned Russia publicly and privately before Election Day to stop interfering, questions have since been raised about whether he acted aggressively enough to stop the threat.
“They say he choked. Well, I don’t think he choked,” Trump said. “I think he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, and he said, ‘Let’s not do anything about it.'”
Using information collected by the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, the U.S. national intelligence director last year concluded that Moscow was behind the hack of Democratic Party email systems and attempted to influence the 2016 election to benefit Trump. The Obama administration said the effort was directed from the “highest levels” of Russia’s government — a reference to Putin.
Trump said the CIA had informed Obama about the hacking months before the election but added that “mistakes have been made.” Though Trump has made similar statements before, it was an extraordinary public expression of doubt about U.S. intelligence capabilities by a president while standing on foreign soil.
In his first public comments since North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, Trump declined to offer specifics about what a U.S. response might entail, though he called it a “threat” and said the U.S. would “confront it very strongly.” Trump said it wasn’t certain he’d follow through on the severe steps he was weighing, adding that he does “not draw red lines.”
“It’s a shame that they’re behaving this way,” Trump said of North Korea’s leaders. “But they are behaving in a very, very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it.”
The U.S. has been considering a range of possible sanctions, economic measures and other steps to confront Pyongyang. The test of an ICBM marked a major technological advancement for North Korea that U.S. officials have described as intensifying the threat against the U.S. by bringing the North closer to being able to mount a nuclear warhead atop a missile that could hit American soil.
Trump’s comments came as he opened his second visit to Europe, a trip that will also take him to Germany for the Group of 20 economic summit, where he’ll meet with Putin. In Warsaw, Trump used part of a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda to attack several U.S. news organizations for their coverage of his presidency, eliciting sympathy from Duda, who suggested that he, too, was covered unfairly.
“We don’t want fake news,” Trump said.
Standing alongside the visiting American, Duda said he hoped Poland would soon sign a long-term contract for U.S. liquefied gas deliveries that will help it cut dependence on Russian oil and gas, which Moscow has previously used as a tool to exert political pressure. Poland received its first U.S. delivery last month, a one-time deal that it hopes to make permanent.
Drawing an implicit contrast with Russia, Trump pledged that the U.S. would never use energy to coerce eastern and central European nations. He vowed that it wouldn’t allow other nations to coerce them, either.
Later on Thursday, Trump planned to deliver a speech from Krasinski Square, the site of a monument commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation. Crowds waving U.S. and Polish flags gathered ahead of his speech in and around the square, where TV screens were erected to allow more people to see Trump.
Yet the visit drew some criticism from Poland’s Jewish community, which said it regretted Trump was skipping the traditional presidential visit to a memorial honoring those who fought and died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
In his speech, Trump planned to call on Poland and all of America’s European allies to stand united against extremism and other “shared enemies” that pose a threat to freedom and sovereignty, according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House in advance.
“We must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are,” Trump planned to say.
Trump started his day at the Royal Castle, welcomed by Duda with a vigorous handshake in front of a white marble bust of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland. Joking later with leaders at a summit of eastern and central European nations, Trump boasted of a thriving U.S. economy but lamented his exclusion from recent stock market gains.
“Personally, I’ve picked up nothing,” he said.