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ODNI Coats Stands up for Intelligence Community After President Doubts Assessment at Summit

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats quickly defended the intelligence community after Monday’s Helsinki press conference in which President Trump called the investigation into Russia’s campaign influence operation a “mistake” and “a disaster for our country” that had hurt relations with the Kremlin.

Trump made the comments alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin after a day of meetings that had included a two-hour one-on-one conversation with only translators present.

The summit came three days after the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 officers in Main Intelligence Directorate of  the Russian military (GRU) for a 2016 hacking and phishing operation targeting the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the campaign staff of Hillary Clinton.

“One GRU unit worked to steal information, while another unit worked to disseminate stolen information,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a Friday news conference. “The conspirators created fictitious online personas, including ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0,’ and used them to release thousands of stolen emails and other documents, beginning in June 2016. The defendants falsely claimed that DCLeaks was started by a group of American hackers and that Guccifer 2.0 was a lone Romanian hacker.”

“In addition to releasing documents directly to the public, the defendants transferred stolen documents to another organization, not named in the indictment, and discussed timing the release of the documents in an attempt to enhance the impact on the election,” he added. “In an effort to conceal their connections to Russia, the defendants used a network of computers located around the world, and paid for it using cryptocurrency.”

In Helsinki, Trump was asked by an American reporter if he holds Russia “at all accountable for anything in particular.”

“Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish,” Trump replied, talking about rebuilding bilateral relations before adding, “I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated… It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”

Putin confirmed one of the conclusions in the intelligence community’s conclusions in the January 2017 report “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections”: that he favored Trump over Clinton. “Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal,” Putin said.

Trump was then asked whether he believed Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies on the cyberattack report.

“All I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” he said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be…I have confidence in both parties.”

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump added.

Soon afterward, Coats issued a statement declaring that “the role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers.”

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats added.

Multiple news outlets reported that the statement was not cleared through White House channels before release.

On Tuesday, there was a meeting of national security principals at the White House. Afterward, Trump read a prepared statement in the Cabinet Room indicating that he wanted to correct one word in his remarks with Putin.

“A key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t or why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ So just to repeat it, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’ and the sentence should have been — and I thought I would be maybe a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

Before correcting the “would,” Trump said, “I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies, always have. And I have felt very strongly that while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times, I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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