U.S. Sen. John McCain unloaded on President Donald Trump on Saturday after Trump appeared to take the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence officials regarding last year’s election interference.
McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime critic of Putin’s who has publicly fueded with Trump on and off for more than two years, also called Trump’s willingness to cooperate with Putin on Syria “naive” and warned it would jeopardize national security.
“President Trump today stated that he believed Vladimir Putin is being sincere when he denies Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and reiterated that he hopes to cooperate with Russia in Syria,” McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said in a written statement.
MORE:Trump: Putin denies Russia meddling in 2016 election
“There’s nothing ‘America First’ about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” McCain continued. “There’s no ‘principled realism’ in cooperating with Russia to prop up the murderous (Bashar) Assad regime, which remains the greatest obstacle to a political solution that would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria. Vladimir Putin does not have America’s interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naive but also places our national security at risk.”
In Veterans Day remarks to the traveling White House press corps en route to Hanoi, Trump appeared to accept Putin’s reiteration in a recent conversation that Russia “absolutely did not meddle in our election,” adding that “I can’t stand there and argue with him.”
Trump indicated that he wants to build a better U.S.-Russia relationship that, he said, would help in dealing with the Syrian civil war, the ongoing Ukraine crisis and with North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ ” Trump said of Putin. “And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”
MORE: CIA stands by assessment that Russia meddled in election
Trump, in turn, insulted former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey — who Trump fired earlier this year — for concluding that Russia did try to interfere in his 2016 race against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“They’re political hacks,” Trump, who has been traveling throughout Asia, told reporters on Air Force One. “… I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.”
Several hours later, Trump was asked about the interpretation by McCain and others that he believed Putin’s denial on the election-interference issue.
“What I said there is that I believe he believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe,” Trump clarified. “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.”
McCain and Putin have long had a hostile relationship.
Putin officially censured McCain in 2014.
Earlier this year, McCain decried a May 10 Oval Office meeting between Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whom he called “the stooge of a thug and a murderer.” McCain called the meeting a propaganda coup for Putin.
The Kremlin responded by saying McCain’s comments “have gone way over the line of decency” and noted what it called McCain’s “maniacal hatred towards our country.”
Nowicki is The Arizona Republic’s national political reporter. Follow him on Twitter, @dannowicki.
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