Yet at a rally in Pennsylvania hours later, Mr. Trump dismissed the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference as a “hoax” that was impeding his efforts to nurture a constructive relationship with the Russian president. “I got along great with Putin,” he said of their recent meeting in Helsinki, Finland. As for NATO’s members, he said, they were delinquent and in need of a stern lecture about paying their bills.
“It was important that the national security team spoke en masse and forcefully on Russian aggression towards our elections,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO who served under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “But Putin will not be deterred on this issue, or Crimea, or the nerve agent attack until he hears Trump say it forcefully and convincingly.”
“Until then,” Mr. Burns said, “he will view Trump as weak.”
Administration officials said Mr. Trump directed his national security team to hold the briefing on Thursday to underline how seriously he takes the threat of election interference. They said his softer language — whether about Russia or North Korea — merely reflects his conviction that he should cultivate a positive relationship with the leaders of those countries.
Asked why Mr. Trump rarely, if ever, sounds the alarm about Russia’s election meddling, the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, told reporters: “The president has made it abundantly clear to anybody who has responsibility in this area that he cares deeply about it and that he expects them to do their jobs to their fullest ability.”
The dissonance between Mr. Trump and his staff extends to countries like Iran, with which neither he nor his aides are seeking a warm relationship. The president’s declaration that he would meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want” — without preconditions — came just as other officials, including Mr. Pompeo, were hardening their language toward the country.
Mr. Pompeo quickly listed three preconditions for engagement: that the Iranians “demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior” and “enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation.”
For aides like Mr. Pompeo or Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, there could be another reason for the disconnect with Mr. Trump: they harbor their own long-term political ambitions and do not want to run afoul of traditional Republican constituencies.