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Trump Tries Tougher Tone on Russia     07/19 06:13

   President Donald Trump spent a second day managing the political fallout 
from his widely criticized meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin, shifting 
stances and mopping up what the White House said were misstatements.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump spent a second day managing the 
political fallout from his widely criticized meeting with Russia's Vladimir 
Putin, shifting stances and mopping up what the White House said were 
misstatements.

   His toughness with the longtime American foe in question, Trump said 
Wednesday he told the Russian president face-to-face during Monday's summit to 
stay out of America's elections "and that's the way it's going to be."

   That rhetoric marked a turnabout from Trump's first, upbeat description of 
his sit-down with Putin. Still, Trump backtracked on whether Russia is 
currently targeting U.S. elections. When asked the question Wednesday, he 
answered "no," a reply that put him sharply at odds with recent public warnings 
from his own intelligence chief.

   Hours later, the White House stepped in to say Trump's answer wasn't what it 
appeared.

   The zigzagging laid bare the White House's search for a path out of trouble 
that has dogged the administration's discussions of Russia from the start, but 
spiraled after Trump's trip to Helsinki. After days of criticism from both 
Democrats and Republicans, Trump --- a politician who celebrates his brash 
political incorrectness --- has appeared more sensitive than usual to outside 
opprobrium.

   The scale of the bipartisan outcry at Trump's stance toward Putin has only 
been rivaled by his 2017 waffling over condemning white supremacist 
demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

   "I let him know we can't have this," Trump told CBS News of his 
conversations with Putin. "We're not going to have it, and that's the way it's 
going to be."

   Would he hold Putin personally responsible for further election 
interference? "I would, because he's in charge of the country."

   The CBS interview came at the end of two days of shifting statements.

   On Monday, Trump appeared to question the findings of U.S. intelligence 
agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

   His reservations, expressed 18 months into his presidency and as he stood 
standing next to Putin on foreign soil, prompted blistering criticism at home, 
even from prominent fellow Republicans.

   On Tuesday, he delivered a scripted statement to "clarify" --- his word --- 
his remarks Monday. He said he misspoke by one word when he said he saw no 
reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

   On Wednesday, he was asked during a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still 
targeting the U.S., and he answered "no" without elaborating. That came just 
days after National Intelligence Director Dan Coats sounded an alarm, comparing 
the cyberthreat today to the way U.S. officials said before 9/11 that 
intelligence channels were "blinking red" with warning signs that a terror 
attack was imminent.

   White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later Wednesday that 
Trump actually was saying "no" to answering additional questions --- even 
though he subsequently went on to address Russia.

   "The president is wrong," GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said of Trump's 
one-word response. Told that Sanders had since clarified, she responded: 
"There's a walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back? This 
is dizzying."

   Trump has refined and sharpened his presentation in the two days since 
Helsinki.

   At the news conference with Putin, he was asked if he would denounce what 
happened in 2016 and warn Putin never to do it again, and he did not directly 
answer. Instead, he went into a rambling response, including demands for 
investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server and his description of Putin's 
"extremely strong and powerful" denial of meddling.

   Trump asserted Wednesday at the White House that no other American president 
has been as tough on Russia. He cited U.S. sanctions and the expulsion of 
alleged Russian spies from the U.S., telling reporters that Putin "understands 
it, and he's not happy about it."

   The muddied waters have deepened critics' concerns that Trump is not taking 
threats to the U.S. electoral system seriously enough. Pressed on why Trump has 
repeatedly passed on opportunities to publicly condemn Putin's actions, Sanders 
suggested Trump was working to make the most of an "opportunity" for the two 
leaders to work together on shared interests.

   One such opportunity is what Trump termed an "incredible offer" from Putin 
to allow the U.S. access to Russians accused of election hacking and other 
interference. In exchange, Putin wants Russian interviews of Americans accused 
by the Kremlin of unspecified crimes.

   Sanders said Trump was still weighing the offer with his team, adding, 
"We've committed to nothing." Russian officials have said they want to 
interview Kremlin critics Bill Browder and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia 
Michael McFaul.

   McFaul tweeted Wednesday that he hoped the White House would denounce "this 
ridiculous request from Putin."

   Lawmakers have urged Trump to reject the deal.

   "We're going to make sure that Congress does everything it can to protect 
this country," said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who heads up the GOP's campaign 
arm.

   A number of senators are swiftly signing on to a bipartisan bill from Sens. 
Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would slap new sanctions 
on Russia or any other country caught posting ads, running fake news or 
otherwise interfering with election infrastructure.

   Sanders called the legislation "hypothetical" and declined to say whether 
the president would back it.

   Van Hollen said Trump "isn't willing to protect the integrity of our 
democracy in the United States, so Congress has to act."

   Two other lawmakers, Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., 
will try to force a vote Thursday on a resolution backing the intelligence 
community's findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and must be 
held accountable. A similar House vote Tuesday failed on a party-line vote.

   The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Burr 
of South Carolina, said if Trump doubts that Russia would again try to 
intervene, "He needs to read the intelligence."

   At the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington last Friday, Coats said, 
"We are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states 
and voter data bases that we experienced in 2016; however, we fully realize 
that we are just one click on a keyboard away from a similar situation 
repeating itself."

   His comments came the same day the Justice Department unveiled an indictment 
against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for their role in hacking 
Democratic groups during the 2016 campaign.

   "The president was flat out wrong," Michael Morell, former deputy and acting 
director of the CIA said about Trump's remarks after the Cabinet meeting. "The 
Russians continue to interfere in our democracy. In fact, they never stopped."

   Contrary to the U.S. government's fears leading up to the 2016 president 
election, hacking the nation's election infrastructure appeared to take a back 
seat to stealing and leaking salacious documents from the Democratic National 
Committee and House Democrats' campaign arm.

   The success of the apparent dress rehearsal does not bode well for the 
upcoming election cycles in 2018 and 2020, as intelligence leaders have noted 
the ongoing and increasing threat by Russian hackers.

   Federal officials ultimately determined that at least 18 states had their 
election systems targeted in some fashion, and possibly up to 21 found scanning 
of their networks for possible vulnerabilities, according to a report issued by 
the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May.


(KA)

 
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