President Trump began his tour of Eastern Europe on Thursday with a rant that cast U.S. intelligence agencies as untrustworthy in their assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. Trump even deflected blame away from Moscow for election-related hacking.
“I think it was Russia, and I think it could’ve been other people and other countries,” Trump said. “Nobody really knows for sure. A lot of people interfere. It’s been happening for a long time.”
Trump appeared with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw en route to the G-20 summit, where the commander in chief is set to have his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Independent cybersecurity firms, relying on a host of technical indicators, began fingering the Russian government for the hack of the Democratic National Committee in the summer of 2016. Putin has even admitted that “patriotic” Russian hackers may have been behind the breach.
Speaking in Warsaw, Trump said he doubted how many U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the Kremlin's effort in a January report.
“We did some heavy research,” Trump said. “It turned out to be three or four. It wasn’t 17.” It is unusual for a U.S. president to attack his own intelligence agencies, who are responsible for guarding against overseas threats, on foreign soil.
Trump also erroneously claimed the U.S. press corrected its reporting after his supposed “research,” another virtually unprecedented action overseas. The unsubstantiated attack on the press was made next to the chairman of Poland’s Law and Justice party, which “transformed the public broadcaster into a propaganda mouthpiece for the government,” according to The Economist.
Remarkably, Trump did not mention whether he planned to discuss the meddling with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday.
Trump has consistently refused to blame the Kremlin for interfering in the election that landed him in the White House, but he did point fingers at former President Barack Obama on Thursday.
“Why did he do nothing about it?” Trump asked. “He was told it was Russia by the CIA, as I understand it. He did nothing about it. They say he choked. Well, I don’t think he choked. I think what happened is he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and he thought ‘Well, let’s not do anything about it.’’
“He did nothing about it,” Trump repeated. “Why did he do nothing?”
“Mistakes have been made,” he continued. “I agree, I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and other countries. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. may begin working with the Russians to stem the loss of lives in Syria’s civil war.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement on Thursday claiming that Trump’s remarks in Poland “undermine U.S. interests.”
“This is not putting America first, but continuing to propagate his own personal fiction at the country’s expense,” Schiff wrote. “President Trump must have the courage to raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections directly with President Putin, otherwise the Kremlin will conclude he is too weak to stand up to them. That would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come.”
Trump also used the opportunity to slap down CNN.
He noted that the network “has some pretty serious problems.”
“They have been fake news for a long time,” he continued.
“They’ve been covering me in a very dishonest way. Do you have that also, by the way, Mr. President?” he asked Duda.
“NBC is equally as bad, despite the fact that I made them a fortune with The Apprentice, but they forgot that,” he said.
“We want to see fair press. We don’t want fake news.”
Trump also addressed—for the first time—North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile launch Tuesday. Officials believe the weapon is capable of striking Alaska.
“It’s a shame they’re behaving this way—they’re behaving in a very, very dangerous manner and something will have to be done about it,” Trump said.
“I don’t know, we will see what happens,” he said, refusing to elaborate. “I have some pretty severe things that we are thinking about. That doesn’t mean we are going to do it. I don’t draw red lines.”
In a turnaround from the joint press conference, Trump targeted Russia during his speech to a raucous crowd just hours later, calling out the Kremlin for “destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran.”
He publicly asked that Russia “instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.”
Trump also said that NATO must “meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare,” adding that the alliance “must adapt to compete effectively in new ways and on all new battlefields.”
He reiterated that more member countries must contribute more money, while at the same time affirming that the U.S. stands behind Article 5, the organization’s principle for common defense.
“To those who would criticize our tough stance, I would point out that the United States has demonstrated not merely with words, but with its actions, that we stand firmly behind Article 5,” he said.
Even still, he added: “Europe must do more.”