Two disaffected former U.S. intelligence chiefs on Sunday accused President Trump of being “played” by Russia after Mr. Trump said he accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest denials of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election.
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan and ex-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, both of whom parted ways with the administration this year and have been called “hacks” by Mr. Trump, said the president is showing a gullibility about Russia’s interference that puts national security in peril.
“By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin, ‘We know that you’re responsible for this,’ I think he’s giving Putin a pass,” Mr. 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, which is very, very worrisome from a national security standpoint,” Mr Brennan said.
Mr. Clapper said the president, who is nearing the end of a 12-day trip through Asia, is showing weakness in front of other world leaders.
“He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet, honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office,” Mr. Clapper said on CNN. “I think that appeals to him and it plays to his insecurities. Yes, I do think that both the Chinese and the Russians can play him.”
He said the threat posed by Russia is “manifest and obvious and has been for a long time.”
“To try to paint it in any other way is astounding and poses a peril,” Mr. Clapper said.
Top Trump aides blasted the former intelligence chiefs, with Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin branding their comments “ridiculous.”
“President Trump is not getting played by anybody,” Mr. Mnuchin told CNN. “President Trump was focused on some very important issues in North Korea and Syria, and those are areas in which we need to work with Russia and get them onboard with our strategy.”
On Saturday Mr. Trump told reporters on Air Force One during a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, that special counsel Robert Mueller is leading an “artificial Democratic hit job” that could interfere with his diplomatic efforts with Russia on crucial problems such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Syria’s civil war.
Asked if he had raised the issue of Russian meddling during a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin at a summit in Vietnam, Mr. Trump said: “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
The president also dismissed Mr. Clapper, Mr. Brennan and fired FBI Director James B. Comey as “hacks” whose assessments he hadn’t trusted on Russia.
On Sunday Mr. Trump clarified that he has confidence in the current leadership of U.S. intelligence agencies, and said he believes Mr. Putin is “sincere” in his denials of interference.
“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin at a news conference. “As to whether I believe it, I’m with our agencies. As currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday, “He believes the assessment of the intelligence communities. And he stands by that. He’s very respectful of that.”
On Twitter Mr. Trump criticized “haters and fools,” and said having a good relationship with Russia “is a good thing, not a bad thing” because he wants “to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!”
U.S. intelligence agencies made the assessment under Mr. Brennan, Mr. Clapper and Mr. Comey that Russia interfered in the presidential election to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Mr. Trump. That’s still the view of the intelligence agencies; Congress also is investigating the matter.
Mr. Mueller recently issued the first indictments, including against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, in his probe of possible ties between Trump aides and Russia. Another top aide was indicted for crimes unrelated to the campaign, and a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser has pleaded guilty. Mr. Trump repeatedly has denied collusion with Russia.
Mr. Brennan said the president referred to the former intelligence chiefs as hacks “because he was trying to delegitimize the intelligence assessment that was done.”
“Considering the source of the criticism, I consider that criticism a badge of honor,” Mr. Brennan said. “To impugn the character of somebody like Jim Clapper on Veteran’s Day, who has dedicated so much of his life to this country, I just find that outrageous. I think it’s something Mr. Trump should be ashamed of, but it doesn’t seem that anything that he does he feels any shame of whatsoever.”
Mr. Clapper said relying on Russia to help resolve global hot spots is a poor bet.
“I think it’s very naive and in fact perilous to this country to make an assumption that Russia is going to behave with the best interest of the world or certainly the United States. They’re not,” Mr. Clapper said.
Mr. Trump told reporters that recent U.S. sanctions against Moscow over the election meddling should allow both countries to move forward.
“People don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” he said. “They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.”
The president arrived Sunday in The Philippines, the final stop on his five-nation trip, for another economic summit and bilateral meetings on trade and security issues. He was to meet early Monday, local time, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a target of human rights groups over his harsh crackdown on drug traffickers.
Over the weekend, 11 Pacific Rim nations reached agreement on the broad outline of a new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, a pact that Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from participating in. The president has been pursuing bilateral trade deals on his trip, but some critics said they worry the U.S. is losing influence in the region.
“You now have 11 countries agreeing that they’re going to get together and be involved in trade,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said on CNN. “You have China rising with their economic program, trying to influence the world, and … we’re staying home. It doesn’t make any sense, both from an economic point of view, but also from a geopolitical point of view. We need to have influence in the world. And to have walked away from this is just really a very, very big mistake.”