Trump tougher on Russia, but comments on meddling clash with intel chiefs’

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President Donald Trump has taken a tougher tone on Russia, saying in an interview that he told Vladimir Putin to stay out of America’s elections.

Such rhetoric is an about-turn from the president’s initial upbeat description of his meeting with Russia’s president.

The shifting stance came in an interview with CBS on Wednesday as Mr Trump spent more time managing the fallout from his widely-criticised summit with Mr Putin in Helsinki.

Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki
Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

His answer, “no” without elaboration, put him sharply at odds with public warnings from his own intelligence chief.

A short time later his press secretary explained that Mr Trump was saying “no” to answering additional questions, though he subsequently went on to address Russia.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats’ drumbeat of criticism against Russia clashed loudly with Mr Trump’s pro-Kremlin remarks.

It leaves the soft-spoken spy chief in an uncomfortable — and perhaps perilous — seat in the administration.

Dan Coats
Dan Coats (Kevin Wolf/AP)

His job is to share the work of the 17 intelligence agencies he oversees with the president.

Mr Coats will be speaking on Thursday at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado. The former Republican lawmaker is expected to outline the cyberthreats the US faces from Russia as well as other countries, such as China, North Korea and Iran.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Wednesday that Russia continues to use fake news, propaganda and covert operations to “spin up” Americans on both sides of hot-button issues to sow discord in the US.

Mr Wray stood behind the intelligence agencies’ assessment that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election, dismissing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that his country was not involved.

Christopher Wray
Christopher Wray (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Mr Wray spoke after a day of controversy in Washington over whether Mr Trump accepts the intelligence agencies’ assessment and whether he believes Moscow is continuing to try to influence American elections or threaten the nation’s infrastructure.

The FBI chief also dismissed Mr Putin’s offer to allow the US access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers who have been indicted on charges of interfering in the election in return for being able to interview Americans the Kremlin has accused of unspecified crimes.

The White House said it was under consideration. Mr Wray dismissed the offer.

“I never want to say never about anything,” Mr Wray said, “but it’s certainly not high on our list of investigative techniques”.

Much of the conversation with Mr Wray, which was moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, focused on Russia.

“Russia continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” Mr Wray said.

He said that while US officials have not yet seen an effort by Russia to target specific election systems, it is aggressively engaged in influence operations to sow discord and divisiveness in America.

“To me, it’s a threat that we need to take very serious and respond to with fierce determination,” Mr Wray said.

He said the Russians identify divisive issues, and through covert and overt operations, fake news and propaganda, they “spin people up on both sides of an issue and then kind of watch us go after each other”.

Russia is not the only country threatening the US, Mr Wray said.

He said he thinks China, from a counterintelligence perspective, represents the broadest and most significant threat America faces.

China wants to replace the US as the most powerful economic engine in the world and is infiltrating American businesses to get an edge.

“We have economic espionage investigations in all 50 states” that can be traced back to China, Mr Wray said. “It covers everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between.

“The volume of it. The pervasiveness of it. The significance of it is something that I think this country cannot underestimate.”

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