The top U.S. diplomat for Europe is warning that Russia is attempting "to break apart the American republic" and that making that threat about U.S. politics "would be a gift to Putin" and "the most dangerous thing in the world we can do."
The message, however, seems to contradict President Donald Trump's, one day after he again questioned whether Russia has interfered in American politics and after he has repeatedly politicized the threat, including by saying Russia favors the Democratic Party.
Trump told Reuters on Monday that the probe by the Special Counsel's office into Russian interference in the 2016 election has "played right into the Russians -- if it was Russia."
It was just the latest example of Trump casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the election. Most recently, after his day of meetings in July with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he stood next to the leader who may have ordered the hack and said he accepted Putin's denials -- only to backtrack the next day in Washington.
But A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, voiced urgent concern that Putin essentially is attacking the U.S.
"Putin's thesis is that the American constitution is an experiment that will fail if it is challenged from the right way within," Mitchell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. "Putin wants to break apart the American republic not by influencing an election or two, but by systematically inflaming the fault lines within our society."
In particular, he warned, Russia has been rallying and supporting, financially and organizationally, groups on the far left and far right "that stood for really heinous and hideous causes."
"It's a very cynical effort to pit preexisting political camps against one other," he said.
Because Russia seeks to divide the American public, sowing more division would be "a gift to Putin," according to Mitchell, who added, "The most dangerous thing in the world we can do is politicize the challenge" from Russia.
But critics on the left and right have said that's what the president has done, even when it comes to the threat of future Russian interference. Trump tweeted in July that Russia "will be pushing very hard for the Democrats," for example.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the committee who's been critical of Trump, offered praise for the administration's policies, but said Trump's rhetoric has "undermined" those policies and helped "create additional disunity with the West."
Under similar lines of questioning from several other senators, Mitchell pushed back on that idea, at one point saying, "We're all on the same page." The administration's actions come at the president's direction, he added, and he said he had a list of times Trump voiced support for the intelligence community's assessment of Russia's 2016 interference, just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did during testimony last month.
In addition, of the 580 current U.S. sanctions against Russia, the Trump administration has imposed 217, according to his testimony. The U.S. supports British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's call for Europe to strengthen sanctions after the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March, he said.
Russian agents reportedly used a deadly nerve agent to try to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent who worked for British intelligence, and his daughter, Yulia. The U.S. expelled 60 Russians from diplomatic missions in the U.S. and shuttered the Seattle consulate over it.
Because of that use of a chemical weapon, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner pressed both Mitchell and the Treasury's Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea on whether the administration is considering designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism -- after North Korea was for using a nerve agent in the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother in Malaysia. Both officials said that would require a State Department review, but Billingsea noted Russia has "definitely engaged in outrageous behavior," including other attempted assassinations on foreign soil.
Still, even with all of those sanctions, there has been no change in Russian behavior, Corker said, citing a classified briefing by administration officials. As an example, the Russians are still undertaking another influence campaign to interfere in the 2018 midterm Congressional elections. While Mitchell said it was "not at 2016 levels," he repeated what other top officials have said -- that the campaign is a "very serious threat, "broad and deep," and "ongoing."
In the face of that continued interference, Mitchell and Billingslea declined to comment whether sanctions were "working," but both noted what they considered some successes.
"Had we not been applying the kind of massive pressure we are applying on the regime, their behavior would be off the charts," Billingslea said, adding that sanctions had limited their "freedom to act and the amount of resources they have on hand."
But without any major changes in Russian activity, there's now a debate about whether the U.S. should increase sanctions on Russia and drive up the cost of what U.S. officials have called their "malign behavior" -- or try an alternative path that includes more talks and an easing of sanctions, as Republican Sen. Rand Paul has supported.
Both officials said the administration has the sanctions authorities it needs and favors a "continuation" of the current strategy.