WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday minimized new warnings from U.S. intelligence experts that Russia is interfering in this year’s election campaign, and revived old grievances in claiming that Democrats are determined to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.
As Trump pushed back against the reports that Russia is working to help reelect him, more departures from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence were announced.
Trump started the day on Twitter by claiming that Democrats were pushing a “misinformation campaign” in hopes of politically damaging him.
Then, making light of the intelligence findings at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, he suggested that Russia might actually prefer Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the top Democratic presidential contenders, in the White House. Sanders and his wife, Jane, in 1988 spent their honeymoon in the then Soviet Union, Trump noted.
“Would you rather have, let’s say, Bernie?” Trump said. ”Wouldn’t you rather that Bernie, who honeymooned in Moscow?”
Intelligence officials told lawmakers in a classified briefing last week that Russia is meddling with the hope of getting Trump reelected, according to officials familiar with the briefing
The fresh intelligence warnings about Russian interference came in what has been a tumultuous stretch for the intelligence community.
A day after the Feb. 13 briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump berated the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire in a meeting at the White House. Then this week, Trump abruptly announced that Maguire would be replaced by Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist who also will hold the job in an acting capacity.
In addition to Maguire, two other senior officials will soon leave the agency.
Andrew Hallman, one of Maguire’s top deputies, announced Friday he would leaving. He is expected to return to the CIA, where he has spent more than 30 years, according to an official familiar with the move, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the personnel move.
In addition, Jason Klitenic, the general counsel for the national intelligence director’s office, is returning to private practice. Klitenic’s departure is unrelated to the sudden shakeup by Trump, according to the official.
Former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday that Trump’s ouster of Maguire and Hallman was a “virtual decapitation of the intelligence community.”
Trump tweeted Friday that he was considering four candidates to serve as permanent intel director and expected to make a decision within the next few weeks. He told reporters Thursday evening that Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia was among those he’s considering.
But Collins, who is vying for one of Georgia’s Senate seats, said Friday he’s not interested in the job overseeing the nation’s 17 spy agencies.
The installation of Grenell, even in a temporary role, has raised questions among critics about whether Trump is more interested in having a loyalist instead of someone steeped in the complicated inner workings of international intelligence.
Grenell has a background that is primarily in politics and media affairs. Most recently, he’s been serving as Trump’s chief envoy to Germany.
The Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, dismissed Grenell as someone who, “by all accounts, rose to prominence in the Trump administration because of his personal devotion to Donald Trump and penchant for trolling the President’s perceived enemies on Twitter.”
From the start of his presidency three years ago, Trump has been dogged by insecurity over his loss of the popular vote in the general election and a persistent frustration that the legitimacy of his presidency is being challenged by Democrats and the media, aides and associates say. He’s also aggressively played down U.S. findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
In addition to those findings by the major intelligence agencies, a nearly two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was a sophisticated, Kremlin-led operation to sow division in the U.S. and upend the 2016 election by using cyberattacks and social media as weapons.
Moscow has denied any meddling. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the newest allegations are “paranoid reports that, unfortunately, there will be more and more of as we get closer to the elections (in the U.S.). Of course, they have nothing to do with the truth.”
But in the U.S., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that, “American voters should decide American elections — not Vladimir Putin.” She added that all members of Congress “should condemn the President’s reported efforts to dismiss threats to the integrity of our democracy & to politicize our intel community.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted: “We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections. If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, said of Trump and the new warnings: “Putin’s Puppet is at it again, taking Russian help for himself.”
“He knows he can’t win without it. And we can’t let it happen,” she said on Twitter.
The U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the 2016 election through social media campaigns and by stealing and distributing emails from Democratic accounts. They say Russia was trying to boost Trump’s campaign and add chaos to the American political process.
Mueller concluded separately that Russian interference was “sweeping and systematic,” but he did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Republican lawmakers who were in last week’s briefing by the director of national intelligence’s chief election official, Shelby Pierson, pushed back by saying Trump has been tough on Russia, according to one of the officials describing the meeting.
While Trump has imposed severe economic sanctions on Russia, he also has spoken warmly of Putin and withdrawn troops from areas including Syria, where Moscow could fill the vacuum. He delayed military aid last year to Ukraine, a Russian adversary — a decision that was at the core of his impeachment proceedings.
White House officials said Trump has made clear that any efforts by Russia, or any other nation, to interfere in American elections will be met with sharp consequences.
The tumult caused by the sudden ouster of Maguire adds a new chapter to Trump’s fraught relationship with the intelligence community. He has derided intelligence officials as part of a “deep state” of entrenched bureaucrats who seek to undermine his agenda.
In addition to feuding over the Russian interference, he’s claimed that members of the intelligence community unfairly accused him of unlawfully pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, another central element of the impeachment drama.
At times, Trump has mocked the intelligence community, which he sees as obsessed with Russia. During a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of an international summit in Japan last year, Trump jokingly turned to Putin and playfully told him, “Don’t meddle in the election, President.”
Pierson told NPR in an interview that aired last month that the Russians “are already engaging in influence operations relative to candidates going into 2020.”
Pierson said it’s not just a Russia problem.
“We’re still also concerned about China, Iran, non-state actors, hacktivists and frankly — certainly for DHS and FBI - even Americans that might be looking to undermine confidence in the elections.”
At an open hearing this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia was engaged in “information warfare” heading into the November election, but that law enforcement had not seen efforts to target America’s infrastructure. He said Russia is relying on a covert social media campaign to divide the American public.