WASHINGTON — He brushed it off as a hoax. He mused that it might be China, or a guy from New Jersey, or “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.” He said President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had assured him it wasn’t true. And, he added, “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
President Trump has never stopped belittling the charge that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. But on Friday, with the indictment of 13 Russians for orchestrating a vast, well-funded operation to interfere in the election, those denials collided with a mountain of evidence arrayed by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
For Mr. Trump, who has tried to discredit Mr. Mueller’s investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt, it was a direct assault on the version of reality that he has sought tirelessly to create.
By laying out a meticulous case for how Russia tried to tip the electoral scales toward Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Mueller has made it much harder for the president to dismiss the investigation as mere politics. He may also have made it harder for Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Mueller himself, since, as some Democratic lawmakers argued, that would look like an attempt to help Russia further undermine American democracy.
Before the charges were announced, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, briefed Mr. Trump and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, and handed over a copy of the indictment, according to a person briefed on the matter. Mr. Mueller was not present at the briefing.
On Friday afternoon, after Mr. Trump left Washington for his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, the White House issued a defiant statement claiming that the investigation had uncovered no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Thirteen Russian nationals have been charged with illegally trying to disrupt the American political process through inflammatory social media posts and organized political rallies.
“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” the president said in a statement.
In a tweet, Mr. Trump played up Mr. Mueller’s assertion that the Russian operation had begun in 2014, well before he declared his candidacy. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!” he wrote.
Far from being rattled, Mr. Trump was elated, according to his advisers, because he viewed it as evidence that Mr. Mueller now knows who the malefactors are — and they do not include him or members of his team. (The indictment refers to campaign officials who met or communicated with Russians, but says they were “unwitting.”)
Yet Mr. Trump sidestepped the fact that he has stubbornly denied Russia’s interference, even after two assessments by the nation’s intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had meddled. Last November, during a trip to Asia, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Putin had told him that Russia did not meddle, and that he was inclined to believe him.
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump said. “I think he is very insulted by it,” he added, “which is not a good thing for our country.”
Mr. Trump went so far as to suggest that the heads of the intelligence agencies at the time of the 2016 election — John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director; James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence; and James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director — were less trustworthy than Mr. Putin.
“I mean, give me a break — they’re political hacks,” he told reporters. “You have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar, and he’s proven to be a leaker, so you look at that.”
Still, the response on Capitol Hill was resounding — at least concerning the gravity of Russia’s actions — and it could narrow Mr. Trump’s room for maneuver as he tries to limit the political fallout from the investigation.
“The Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system,” the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, said. “It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself.”
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said the indictment was “further proof that Vladimir Putin directed a campaign to interfere with our elections, with the goal of tipping the outcome.” He called on Mr. Trump to immediately reverse his decision not to impose sanctions against Russia that were recently passed by Congress.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, argued that any attempts to remove Mr. Mueller or Mr. Rosentein “will have to be seen as a direct attempt to aid the Russian government in attacking American democracy.”
Mr. Trump has not hesitated to put Mr. Mueller’s future in jeopardy. Last July, he threatened to dismiss the special counsel if his investigation ranged too far afield from Russia’s campaign meddling. In an interview with The New York Times, he complained that Mr. Mueller’s office was rife with conflicts of interest and that the investigation had crossed a red line.
A month earlier, several officials said, Mr. Trump actually gave an order to fire Mr. Mueller but backed down after Mr. McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry it out.
Mr. Trump’s strategy for dealing with charges of Russian meddling has not varied much since the campaign: deny, obfuscate, play down and, since Election Day, blame it on Democrats bitter after Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
In May, Mr. Trump told Lester Holt, the NBC News anchor, “This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
In September, he tweeted that “the Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?” PolitiFact called Mr. Trump’s denial of Russian meddling its 2017 “Lie of the Year.”
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has often expressed concern that the charges undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. He has told associates that if he accepts the premise of Russian meddling, it will call into question the idea that he won the election on his own merits.
That fear drove many of Mr. Trump’s most incendiary tweets and statements throughout his first year in office, especially about the size and breadth of his electoral victory. The day after his inauguration, Mr. Trump ordered his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to insist that his inaugural crowd was the largest in history, which it demonstrably was not.
In news conferences, on Twitter and at rallies, he has called the Russia investigation “fake news” and repeatedly predicted that Mr. Mueller’s investigation will end without finding much.
Mr. Mueller’s indictment does not settle the overarching question of whether Mr. Trump or any of his campaign associates colluded with Russia. For now, the president has seized on that as evidence of his innocence.
But as Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, put it, “The indictment leaves open the vital question of whether Americans, including any associated with the Trump campaign, knowingly played a role in Russia’s active-measures campaign.”
That seemed a likely avenue of inquiry for an investigation that is casting a lengthening shadow on Mr. Trump’s presidency.
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