U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he doesn't believe Russia is still targeting the United States, contradicting U.S. intelligence assessments that Moscow is continuing its attempts to meddle in U.S. elections, but White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders later said his remark was misunderstood by the press.
He also took questions about Russia on Wednesday in an interview with CBS News, saying he was "very strong" on the issue of meddling in his recent summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The issue of Trump and his views on 2016 election meddling has been under renewed scrutiny since Monday's summit, when the president didn't offer support for U.S. intelligence agencies, which found that Russia interfered in election.
After backlash and criticism from both critics and members of his own party, Trump tried on Tuesday to walk back his summit comments, saying that he had misspoken.
But on Wednesday, the issue surfaced again when a reporter asked Trump if Russia was still targeting the United States. Trump shook his head and said, "No."
U.S. intelligence officials have said Russian election interference efforts are continuing and now target the upcoming congressional elections in November.
"We're doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia," Trump told reporters before a cabinet meeting at the White House.
'I'm not reversing it'
Speaking later Wednesday, Sanders told reporters that Trump was saying no to answering questions, not to whether Russia is still targeting the U.S. She said the administration is working to make sure Russia doesn't meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.
When asked whether there were concerns about the president's credibility given Trump's reversal of his remarks about Russia on Tuesday, Sanders was quick to note she wasn't clarifying anything on Wednesday.
Sarah Sanders says Trump was saying no to questions, not to whether Russia is trying to interfere 1:40
"I'm interpreting what the president said, I'm not reversing it," Sanders said. "I was in the room as well and I didn't take it the way you did."
Cecilia Vega, the ABC News reporter who asked the question, said on Twitter that she believes the president heard her clearly.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a congressional committee in February that he already had seen evidence Russia was targeting U.S. elections in November, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.
In rebutting Trump's dismissive comments about U.S. intelligence on Monday, Coats said in a statement, "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."
In an interview with Jeff Glor of CBS Evening News, which was released in part Wednesday evening, Trump was asked whether he holds Putin personally responsible for election meddling in 2016.
"Well I would, because he's in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So, certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes," Trump said.
The president was asked what he said to Putin, and he replied that he was "very strong on the fact that we can't have meddling."
In the interview, Trump said he has confidence in the intelligence agencies as they are currently constituted — but he had harsh words for several previous senior intelligence officials, including ex-CIA chief John Brennan and James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence.
The president was responding to a question about whether he thought any U.S. intelligence agencies were out to get him.
"Certainly, I can't have any confidence in the past but I can have a lot of confidence in the present and the future because it's getting to be how where we're putting our people in," Trump said. "I have no confidence in a guy like Brennan — I think he's a total low-life."
Brennan, who served as CIA director from 2013 to 2017, issued a scathing tweet after Trump's Helsinki summit.
When asked about special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing probe, the president once again said there's been no collusion. He said he has "always" wanted to sit down with Mueller — but that his lawyers are still working on that.
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