WASHINGTON – Even as President Trump continues to equivocate on Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, his new chief of staff as recently as last week took a strong public stand affirming the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that the Kremlin tried to influence the election in favor of Trump.
Trump announced Friday he is replacing his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, with retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, his Homeland Security secretary. But it's unclear whether the two will see eye to eye on one of the major issues dogging Trump's White House.
Last week, at the Aspen Security Forum, Kelly was among several top national security officials who backed the government's conclusion that Russia carried out a campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to influence the election in favor of Trump.
Kelly joined CIA Director Mike Pompeo, White House Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism adviser Tom Bossert and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats who all expressed their support last week for the intelligence community's findings.
Yet Kelly now walks into a White House where the president and his top staffers have been consumed by questions about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia and an ongoing Justice Department inquiry into possible coordination between the campaign and Moscow.
Trump, infuriated by the ongoing Russia probes, has called the investigations a "witch hunt" and has not yet condemned Moscow for its actions. He also has cast doubt on the intelligence community's unqualified assessment that Russia was to blame.
Kelly went beyond acknowledging the intelligence assessment, and spoke last week at length about the government's efforts to counter future cyberattacks by Russia.
With the 2018 elections looming, Kelly said the U.S. has been offering assistance to state election officials to bolster their defenses. At least 21 state election systems were targeted by Russia during 2016, federal authorities said.
But Kelly said local authorities continue to be wary of any federal intervention.
"We don't want you involved in our election policies,'' Kelly said, recounting a now-common refrain from state officials.
"I think they would be nuts if they don't accept help,'' the secretary said.
Earlier this month, Trump still did not say whether he believes the intelligence community's assessment, even after his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.
"I'm not saying it wasn't Russia,'' Trump said on July 13.