Ex-officials say Trump let Putin off easy

WASHINGTON -- Two top former U.S. intelligence officials on Sunday accused President Donald Trump of being ambiguous about Vladimir Putin's role in Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying the president is susceptible to foreign leaders who stroke his ego.

"By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin that we know you're responsible for this, I think he's giving Putin a pass," former CIA Director John Brennan said on CNN's State of the Union. "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 try to play upon his insecurities."

Appearing on the same program, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said he agrees with that assessment.

"He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities," Clapper said.

[RUSSIA REPORT: Documents on Russian interference in election ]

Trump told reporters traveling with him in Asia that Putin had assured him at a conference in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and he indicated that he believed Putin was sincere.

Later, in a news conference Sunday in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Trump appeared to be trying to parse his earlier remarks, saying, "What I said is that I believe [Putin] believes that."

"I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said.

"As to whether I believe it, I'm with our agencies," Trump said. "As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies."

In his earlier remarks to reporters, Trump referred to Brennan and Clapper as "political hacks." Brennan said Sunday that he considers Trump's characterization "a badge of honor."

Both men have been critical of Trump for not saying more definitively that Putin was behind the Russian interference in the U.S. election, a conclusion endorsed by the U.S. intelligence community.

"I don't know why the ambiguity about this," Brennan said Sunday. "Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process."

Clapper said, "It's very clear that the Russians interfered in the election, and it's still puzzling as to why Mr. Trump does not acknowledge that and embrace it and also push hard against Mr. Putin."

Clapper called the threat from Russia "manifest and obvious."

"To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country," he said.

Brennan said Trump's ambiguity on Russia's involvement was "very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint."

"I think Mr. Putin is very clever in terms of playing to Mr. Trump's interest in being flattered. 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," Brennan said.

Appearing later on CNN, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin went to Trump's defense, brushing aside the comments of Brennan and Clapper.

"Those were the most ridiculous statements," Mnuchin said. "President Trump is not getting played by anybody."

Mnuchin said Trump wants to focus on thorny issues posed by North Korea and Syria and is trying to get Russia on board with the U.S. strategy.

"I think the country is ready to move on off of this and focus on important issues," he said.

Marc Short, Trump's director of legislative affairs, said Sunday that the president does concur with a January assessment by the intelligence community about Russian meddling.

"But let's be careful and be straight about what it is the president believes right now," Short said during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press.

"He believes that after a year of investigations, of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, there is zero evidence of any ballot being impacted by Russian interference," Short said. "What the president is trying to do right now is recognize the gravest threat that America faces is North Korea developing nuclear weapons. And nuclear weapons in North Korea is a greater threat than Russia buying Facebook ads in America."

In Hanoi on Sunday, Trump pointed to sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia as punishment for election meddling. "They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently," he said. "It's now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken."

Despite Trump's campaign pledge to improve battered relations with Russia, ties between the two Cold War foes have become more tense during his first year in office after the U.S. tightened sanctions in response to the alleged election meddling. Russia responded with U.S. diplomatic expulsions, and the two sides have since struggled to make progress on most issues.

After their brief talks in Vietnam, Trump and Putin issued a joint statement in which they agreed to support a political reconciliation in Syria, while maintaining the existing two-nation communication channels used to fight the Islamic State.

Information for this article was contributed by John Wagner of The Washington Post; by Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin, Darlene Superville and Ken Thomas of The Associated Press; and by Jennifer Jacobs, Justin Sink, Todd Shields, Ilya Arkhipov and Mark Niquette of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 11/13/2017

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