WASHINGTON ― Two former top U.S. intelligence officials on Sunday denounced President Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to definitively affirm Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying the president is being manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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,” former CIA Director John Brennan told CNN. “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.”
James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, during an appearance with Brennan on CNN, warned that Trump’s downplaying of Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election “poses a peril to this country.”
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 shown a fondness for Putin, and his campaign faces multiple investigations into whether it colluded with Russia.
Trump on Saturday reignited the controversy, when reporters asked if he discussed Russian interference with Putin while meeting at the Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam.
Attacking Brennan and Clapper as “political hacks,” Trump said he sided with Putin’s denials over the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies.
“He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump told reporters on Saturday. “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.’”
Trump later attempted to soften those comments, claiming, “I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
In response, Brennan said Trump is perhaps being manipulated by Putin.
“I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump’s interest in being flattered,” Brennan said. “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.”
Asked about the investigations into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, Brennan would only say that he had spoken to investigators.
Clapper, before he stepped down from his post, said in January that he could not conclude whether Trump’s campaign colluded. When he made that remark, Clapper said on Sunday, 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.
“The statement I made at the time was true. I had no direct evidence of collusion,” Clapper said Sunday. At the time, he added, “we had lots of concerns, because we were aware of multiple meetings that were going on.”
The new information “raises, I think, circumstantial questions, if nothing else,” he said.
Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, dismissed the concerns of Clapper and Brennan, and downplayed the issue of Russian interference.
“President Trump is not getting played by anybody,” Mnuchin said later on CNN. “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.”