As President Donald Trump was calling allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election “fake news” on Thursday, his secretary of defense, James Mattis, was at NATO headquarters in Brussels saying he has “very little doubt” that it happened.
“They have either interfered or attempted to interfere in a number of elections in democracies,” Mattis said at a news conference in Brussels, where he’s attending a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
The statement made Mattis the highest ranking member of Trump’s administration to accuse Russia of interfering in elections.
Around the same time on Thursday, Trump was tweeting that allegations of Russian interference in the election had been fabricated.
“The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly…so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!” he tweeted on Thursday morning.
The point about Russia is that they have to live by international law just like we expect all mature nations on this planet to do. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
At a White House news conference later in the day, Trump again called reports of Russian meddling “fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it.”
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow hacked the Democratic National Committee and released stolen emails in an effort to boost Trump. Their report said Russian President Vladimir Putin developed a “clear preference” for the Republican candidate during the campaign. The president was briefed on their conclusions during his transition, but has subsequently downplayed Russia’s role.
Earlier on Thursday, Mattis also seemed to shut the door on possible military ties between the U.S. and Russia, although Trump has suggested that he would be open to joint action against Islamic State militants in Syria.
“We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level,” Mattis said. “Our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground. But Russia is going to have to prove itself first and live up to the commitments they have made.”
Mattis said he and his NATO counterparts discussed “increased threats facing our alliance,” including Russia.
“Russia’s aggressive actions have violated international law and are destabilizing,” he said.
At his news conference on Thursday, Trump repeated that having “a good relationship with Russia . . . that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
If you were Putin right now, you would say, “Hey, we’re back to the old games with the United States; there’s no way Trump can ever do a deal with us.” President Donald Trump
He did not give a clear answer when asked how the U.S. will respond to recent provocations by its former Cold War foe, including a Russian cruise missile deployed in an apparent treaty violation, a Russian spy ship spotted off the coast of Connecticut, and three Russian aircraft buzzing a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea.
The president said those actions were “not good,” but that he does not think Putin is testing him.
“I think Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular,” he said. “It would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal.”