Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that President Trump has never objected to discussions about Russian threats despite a report this week that administration officials downplay such intelligence to avoid angering the president.
“I have no reservations nor has the president ever evidenced any pushback when I bring up Russia in a national security context, and obviously this has come up,” Mattis said during a visit with reporters at the Pentagon.
Intelligence on Russia is sometimes included only in the written section of his daily briefings or the CIA briefer attempts to present it in a way that softens the impact, the Washington Post reported in a story that had 50 current and former U.S. officials as sources.
“If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the [presidential daily briefing] off the rails,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official told the Post.
However, Mattis denied officials have been hesitant to report and discuss Russia in the context of the NATO alliance, the Syria war, and other issues.
“The intel people, I have not seen this shyness including over at the White House in the [situation] room,” Mattis said, referring to the report.
A U.S. intelligence community assessment determined last year that Russia interfered in the presidential election by hacking Democrats and spreading false information on social media. Trump has acknowledged that Moscow may have played a part but also expressed doubt about whether that conclusion is certain.
“Yes, I believe they did,” Mattis said when asked if the Russians meddled in the election.
The election interference is now part of a probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether the Trump campaign may have colluded with the Russians in an attempt to swing the outcome.
Also on Friday, Mattis said he sees no need for more U.S. military personnel in the Middle East to counter Iranian activity after U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused the country of violating Security Council bans on weapons transfers.
Haley showed the media Thursday the wreckage of Iranian rockets she said were recovered from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region and declassified to prove the abuses.
“That’s the reason Ambassador Haley was there and not one of our generals … this is a diplomatically led effort to expose to the world what Iran is up to,” Mattis said. “What they are doing right now is illegal, it is contributing to the deaths of innocent people, and to expose what they are doing is healthy for the international community.”
Mattis said the U.S. is trying to help allies in the region to resist Iran’s influence and build up their own military capabilities.