President Donald Trump is facing fresh political heat over his relationship with Vladimir Putin over details of a new Russian hacking strike against US democracy that emerged hours after he again cast doubt on Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential race.
Russia immediately denied the allegations by Microsoft and responded with a cryptic comment that it had heard from the US "that there was not any meddling in the elections." The Kremlin's choice of words will renew intrigue about what exactly the President told the Russian President during their private meeting in Helsinki, Finland, last month, the full contents of which are still not known to some top intelligence officials.
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The claims that Russian hackers targeted conservative think tanks critical of Trump and the Moscow government and the US Senate may also again expose the odd divide between the President and his own national security and intelligence establishment on the issue.
Earlier this month, the White House put on an impressive show of force by top national security and intelligence officials who warned of a "pervasive" campaign against US democracy by Russia and attempts to sow discord in November's elections.
Yet on Monday, extending an ongoing pattern, Trump again appeared to cast doubt on the assessments by intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in 2016 to damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and later developed a preference for his candidacy.
In an interview with Reuters, Trump hit out at special counsel Robert Mueller, arguing that instead of unraveling the election-meddling riddle, his probe was exacerbating the damage.
"I think it's a disgrace," Trump told the news agency. "And they had played right into the Russians — if it was Russia — they played right into the Russians' hands."
The President also said he was not currently considering lifting sanctions against Russia but would consider doing so "if they do something that would be good for us."
After being heavily criticized for his cozy treatment of Putin during their news conference in Helsinki, during which he said he didn't know why the Russians would have attacked a US election, Trump changed course back in the United States.
Reading from a script at the White House, he said that he had actually meant to say that he didn't know why the Russians "wouldn't" interfere in US elections and said he had made unequivocal statements on Moscow's culpability on multiple occasions.
But even then, he seemed to qualify his remarks saying in an apparent off-the-cuff remark that the meddling could be down to "other people also."
Trump has made clear that he views any claims of election meddling as tantamount to an attack on the legitimacy of his election victory and does not distinguish between claims of Russian interference and allegations that he has denied that members of his campaign colluded with Moscow.
New allegations of Russian election interference come at another perilous moment for US-Moscow relations and an uncomfortable one for the administration since national security adviser John Bolton is due to meet this week in Geneva with top Russian counterparts. He said on Sunday, before the latest allegations of Russian interference emerged, that he would raise the issue of election meddling.
"I'm sure we'll have a discussion about it Thursday. I had a discussion about it myself with President Putin when I went to Moscow originally to prepare the groundwork for his meeting with President Trump. President Trump raised it with President Putin," Bolton said on ABC News' "This Week" on Sunday.
"You keep raising it and we'll see what their response is," Bolton said, but added that the administration was conducting extensive defensive and offensive cyber operations to protect the midterm election. He also warned that the administration was concerned about election meddling by China, Iran and North Korea.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Microsoft allegations were not "grounded in fact."
"Our reaction has already become traditional, we don't know which hackers they are talking about, we don't know what is meant about the impact on elections," he said. "From the US we hear that there was not any meddling in the elections. Whom exactly they are talking about, what is the proof, and on what grounds are they reaching such conclusions?"
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