For a president who frequently has days in which no public events are scheduled, Trump had a fairly busy Christmas holiday, issuing a morning call for unity followed by an attack on Nancy Pelosi in the evening. And on Christmas Eve, from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago, he held a video teleconference with service members from the five branches of the military stationed in Kuwait, the Gulf of Aden, Afghanistan, and bases in Missouri and Alaska.
After the call, the president took questions from reporters, repeating his joke that he might get “a beautiful vase” from Kim Jong-un rather than North Korea’s expected missile test. Riffing on recent themes, he called the FBI “a bunch of dirty cops,” and claimed that Nancy Pelosi “hates the Republican Party.” But one question he did not fully answer surrounded a recent Washington Post report that describes how the president came to believe in the conspiracy that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. “Putin told me,” Trump said to a former White House adviser, describing how he became attached to the idea. When asked on Christmas about the sourcing of his theory on Ukrainian interference, Trump did not engage:
Q: Sir, what did President Putin say to you that convinced you that the Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election?
Trump: What did he say to me?
Trump: About what?
Q: What did President Putin say to you when you met?
Trump: You’re putting words in somebody’s mouth. Who are you referring to? Me? I never said anything about it. I never said a thing about it. All right, any other questions?
He is, in a limited sense, correct: Trump has not publicly said anything confirming the report that the president of Russia convinced him that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. But the president has also issued false denials in the past. (To pick one of several examples, recall his claim in April 2018 that he did not know Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000, followed by his admission to the payoff one month later.)
But the Washington Post presents some robust evidence that Trump was influenced by Putin on his approach to Ukraine. “The strong belief in the White House was that Putin told him,” a former official told the Post, which also reported that “Trump repeatedly told one senior official that the Russian president said Ukraine sought to undermine him.” And according to a Post report from October, Trump has been coached on Ukraine by both Putin and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. Despite his advisers’ consistent pushback on the influence of these autocrats, “over time you just see a wearing down of the defenses,” a former White House official said.