President Donald Trump's top administration officials struggled Sunday to clarify his position on Russian meddling in the 2016 election — as Trump himself muddied the waters with his tweets on the subject.
Trump said Sunday that he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting Friday whether Russia played a role in hacking and leaking private emails from top Democratic officials last year, a conclusion supported broadly by the US intelligence community that Trump has publicly doubted as recently as last week.
In a Sunday interview on "This Week," ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin three times whether the president believed Russia meddled in the 2016 election, a question the secretary refused to answer outright.
"You say he's made it very clear how he feels," Stephanopoulos said. "But we all saw that press conference earlier in the week in Hamburg where the president said about three different things on whether or not Russia meddled. He said I think it was Russia. I think others did it. No one knows for sure.
"What is the president's position on whether or not Russia interfered in the election? Does he accept the conclusions of the intelligence community?" he said.
"I think it was very clear what he said," Mnuchin said. "He said those three things and that's what he believes. But, again, what's important here is, what is the president doing? This is a president that's focused on action. And this was a foreign trip where we had very, very significant meetings."
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley faced similar questions during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."
Though she forcefully argued that "everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections," Haley dismissed questions about whether Trump believed Russia meddled in the election, saying that people were "trying to nitpick" Trump's statements.
"You said everybody knows that the Russians meddled in the U.S. elections, and that the President said so behind closed doors with Vladimir Putin," host Dana Bash said. "If that's the case, why won't the President say this in public? It would put a lot of these questions, and frankly the fact that a lot of your fellow Republicans are perplexed, it would put it all to rest. Why won't he do it?"
"I think that you can ask him," Haley said. "I mean, I think that that's one of the things, let him say this. We heard a lot of people saying that about Article 5 and NATO, that, 'Why didn't he say it, why didn't he say it?' He didn't say it then because he wasn't changing policy. When he was in Poland, give a fantastic speech, and he said that he supported Article 5. And he said that he supported our NATO allies."
"And so I think, everybody's trying to nitpick what he says and what he doesn't, but talk is one thing. Actions are another. He confronted President Putin. He made it the first thing that he talked about. And I think we have to now see where it goes from here."
Trump officials hoping to move away from discussions about Russian meddling weren't helped by Putin, who stoked doubt by saying that Trump seemed "satisfied" by Putin's denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Asked on "Fox News Sunday" about Putin's description of the meeting, Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus pushed back, saying Trump believed Russia interfered in the election.
"He's answered this question many times," Priebus said. "He's said they probably meddled in the election, they did meddle in the election. The one thing that he also says which drives the media crazy but it's an absolute fact, is that others have as well."
Trump seemed to further complicate his message on Sunday by announcing discussions of a joint cybersecurity task force with Russia, a move that provoked immediate criticism from Democrats and Republicans who questioned Trump's willingness to accept that Russia would act in good faith.
"I don't think we can expect the Russians to be any kind of a credible partner in some cyber-security unit," Rep. Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN. "I think that would be dangerously naive for this country. If that's our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow."
Republican senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham agreed.
Partnering with Putin on a "Cyber Security Unit" is akin to partnering with Assad on a "Chemical Weapons Unit". 2/3
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 9, 2017
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