WASHINGTON — Two top former U.S. intelligence officials said Sunday that President Donald Trump is being "played" by President Vladimir Putin on Russia's interference in the 2016 election and accused him of being susceptible to foreign leaders who stroke his ego.
"By not confronting the issue directly and not acknowledging to Putin that we know you're responsible for this, I think he's giving Putin a pass," former CIA director John 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."
Appearing on the same program, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said he agrees with that assessment.
"He seems very susceptible to rolling out the red carpet and honor guards and all the trappings and pomp and circumstance that come with the office, and I think that appeals to him, and I think it plays to his insecurities," Clapper said.
Trump told reporters traveling with him in Asia that Putin had assured him at a conference in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and he indicated that he believed Putin was sincere. Later, in a news conference Sunday in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Trump appeared to be trying to parse his earlier remarks, saying: "What I said is that I believe [Putin] believes that."
In his earlier remarks to reporters, Trump also referred to Brennan and Clapper as "political hacks." Brennan said Sunday that he considers Trump's characterization "a badge of honor." Both men were highly critical of Trump for not saying more definitively that Putin was behind the Russian interference in the U.S. election, a conclusion strongly endorsed by the U.S. intelligence community.
"I don't know why the ambiguity about this," Brennan said. "Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy, and our whole process. And to try paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and, in fact, poses a peril to this country."
Clapper said, "It's very clear that the Russians interfered in the election, and it's still puzzling as to why Mr. Trump does not acknowledge that and embrace it and also push hard against Mr. Putin."
Appearing later on CNN, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came to Trump's defense, brushing aside the comments of Brennan and Clapper.
"Those were the most ridiculous statements," Mnuchin said. "President Trump is not getting played by anybody."
Mnuchin said Trump wants to focus on thorny issues posed by North Korea and Syria and is trying to get Russia on board with the U.S. strategy.
"I think the country is ready to move on off of this and focus on important issues," he said.
Marc Short, Trump's director of legislative affairs, said Sunday that the president does concur with a January 2017 assessment by the intelligence community about Russian meddling.
"But let's be careful and be straight about what it is the president believes right now," Short said during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "He believes that after a year of investigations of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, there is zero evidence of any ballot being impacted by Russian interference. What the president is trying to do right now is recognize the gravest threat that America faces is North Korea developing nuclear weapons. And nuclear weapons in North Korea is a greater threat than Russia buying Facebook ads in America."