WASHINGTON – A day before meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump on Thursday again refused to blame Russia for election meddling designed to put him in the White House – a conclusion that U.S. intelligence agencies made public in January.
“I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries,” Trump said at a joint news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda. He declined to name those other nations: “I won’t be specific.”
Trump did, however, blame former President Barack Obama for failing to stop the interference as well as the intelligence agencies themselves ― extraordinary criticisms coming from a commander-in-chief while on foreign soil.
The Office of National Intelligence released a report on Jan. 6 detailing the consensus view of the National Security Agency, the CIA and the FBI stating that Russia not only meddled in the presidential campaign, but also specifically wanted Trump to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report said. “We have high confidence in these judgments.”
Trump, though, said it was impossible to know who did the meddling – a claim he made frequently during the campaign and transition. “Nobody really knows,” he said. “Nobody really knows for sure.”
He said U.S. intelligence agencies could not be trusted because they had believed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2002. “They were wrong and it led to a mess,” he said.
Trump followed the news conference with a 35-minute prepared speech at Krasinski Square in Warsaw, where he praised the Polish people for their courage during World War II and defined the current battles against the Islamic State and other Islamist terror groups as a clash of civilizations ― a view advanced by top advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller.
“I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken,” Trump said, including in his remarks the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” even though foreign policy experts in his own administration have advised him against using it. “Our values will prevail, our people will thrive and our civilization will triumph.”
Trump did express support for the mutual defense clause of the NATO charter – “We stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment” – even as he continued to criticize other NATO members for not spending enough on defense.
The “Article 5” pledge reportedly had been part of a speech prepared for Trump’s visit to the NATO meeting in Brussels in May, but was removed at the last minute. That change perplexed and worried other NATO members concerned about Russian aggression in recent years.
Trump also criticized Russia directly for its actions in Ukraine, including the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” Trump said.
Trump is in his first full day of a three-day trip to Europe for the G-20 summit of the world’s large industrial economies. Those meetings begin Thursday in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump is also scheduled to have his first one-on-one meeting with Putin.
Trump avoided public speeches during his first trip to Europe, where he is deeply unpopular. He is less strongly disliked in Poland and other Eastern European countries, however, and Polish media reported that the Polish government arranged to bring busloads of people in to cheer Trump at his speech.