U.S. President Donald Trump said in a television interview that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” has been involved in assassinations and reiterated the assertion that Moscow meddled in U.S. politics.
Trump also said he does not know whether U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is planning to step down but that he sees the four-star general as “sort of a Democrat” who just might leave.
The comments came in a prerecorded interview with CBS television’s 60 Minutes program that aired on October 14. The wide-ranging discussion also touched on North Korea, U.S. hurricane relief efforts, the missing Saudi journalist in Turkey, and climate change.
CBS presenter Lesley Stahl asked Trump: "Do you agree that Vladimir Putin is involved in assassinations? In poisonings?"
Trump replied: "Probably he is, yeah. Probably." He then added: "But I rely on them. It’s not in our country."
Neither Stahl nor Trump named any alleged victims. Several critics of Putin have been killed or died in mysterious circumstances, including investigative journalist Anna Poitkovskaya in 2006 and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
A British judge who led an inquiry into the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Russian security officer who became a vocal Putin critic and was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, said it was probable that Putin had approved the operation.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to play down the comments, saying on October 15 that Trump "voiced no direct accusations" against the Russian president.
Asked about Russian interference in the U.S. political system, Trump said he believes that Moscow did meddle, but he added that “China meddled, too.”
“You are diverting the whole Russia thing,” Stahl told the president.
“I’m not doing anything,” Trump replied.
The U.S. intelligence community and a U.S. special counsel have concluded that Russia used a campaign of spreading propaganda on social media and hacking Democratic documents to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favor.
Moscow denies any meddling.
On defense chief Mattis, the Republican president said he is unsure whether the general will remain in his job.
“It could be that he is [leaving]. I think he's sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said.
“But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves," he added.
Mattis is considered one of the most independent members of Trump's cabinet, but also one of the steadiest hands amid an administration marked by a high turnover rate among top officials.
He has been regarded by many as a counterweight to the president and has pressed to improve relations with traditional U.S. allies, including fellow NATO members, amid often harsh language by Trump.
Some Western leaders have also praised Mattis for pushing for a tougher policy toward Putin in the face of Trump's stated desire to improve relations with Moscow.
Speculation has risen about Mattis's future as defense chief since a book by journalist Bob Woodward about Trump's White House said the general had questioned Trump's judgment, likening his understanding to that of a 10- or 11-year-old child.
Mattis denied making the remarks and has consistently denied he was considering quitting.
"Of course, I don't think about leaving," he told reporters in September. "I love it here."
Among the recent high-level departures from the Trump team were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired in March, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who resigned the same month.
On October 9, Trump announced that Nikki Haley would be leaving her post as UN ambassador at the end of the year. No reason for the resignation was immediately given.
Trump also alluded to potential changes more generally in his cabinet.
"I'm changing things around. And I'm entitled to. I have people now on standby that will be phenomenal,” he said.