President Donald Trump said the United States might form a “cyber-security unit” with the Kremlin and highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 election in a series of tweets Sunday morning that drew condemnation from Republican officials.
Yet, Reince Priebus rejected concerns over whether Trump took the Russian leader at his word, in a move that appeared to be damage control by a White House chief of staff widely seen as an emissary between the GOP establishment and an administration often criticized as wily and amateurish.
“The president absolutely did not believe the denial of President Putin,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“He’s answered this question many times, he says hey probably meddled in the election,” he continued. “They did meddle in the election.”
The move came as criticism mounted Sunday morning within Trump’s own party ranks. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said “partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.’” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that collaborating with Russia is “not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close.” Even United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, nominated by Trump, broke with the president, insisting on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “we can’t trust Russia, and we won’t ever trust Russia.”
Priebus said Trump repeatedly pressed Putin on the hacking allegations, “two times, maybe three times.”
“What the president did is he immediately came into the meeting and talked about Russian meddling in the U.S. election,” he said. “This was not just a five minute piece of the conversation. This was an extensive portion of the meeting.”
Priebus, however, dismissed the Russian hacking as a routine form of cyber attack deployed in other elections “consistently over many, many years” by U.S. rivals, including China and North Korea. Trump has long suggested China could be behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The party’s internal emails became a public fixation during last year’s presidential election after WikiLeaks published the leaked trove.
Russian hackers allegedly breached voting machines in 39 states and accessed a campaign finance database in at least one, according to a shocking report published last month by Bloomberg.
“He believes that Russia probably committed all of these acts that we’ve been told of, but he also believes others have [as well],” Priebus said. “It doesn’t mean they’re off the hook.”
He said the administration planned to move forward with a Russian-approved ceasefire in Syria and continue cooperation in the fight against the so-called Islamic State armed group, despite the hacking.
“You can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Priebus said.