Former President George W. Bush said he believes Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, departing from President Donald Trump who has been skeptical of intelligence agencies' findings that the Kremlin had interfered to help him win.
"There's pretty clear evidence that the Russians meddled. Whether they affected the outcome is another question," the 41st president said at a summit in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. He added: "It's problematic that a foreign nation is involved in our election system. Our democracy is only as good as people trust the results."
Bush has been critical of Russia, slamming it for working to "exploit our country's divisions."
"The Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other," Bush said during a forum in New York in October.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Bush's remarks.
Trump has repeatedly denied collusion between his campaign and Russia and dismissed the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials that the Kremlin had interfered in the presidential election. After a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hanoi, Vietnam, in November, Trump said Putin was "sincere" in his denials.
"He said he didn't meddle," Trump told reporters on Air Force One. "I asked him again. . . . He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election."
But Trump has not been consistent in his statements. As president-elect, he conceded for the first time last year that Russia had carried out cyberattacks against the Democratic Party during the election but denied that it was intended to help him win.
"As far as hacking, I think it was Russia," Trump told reporters during a combative news conference at Trump Tower - only to backtrack moments later by saying "it could have been others also."
In an interview with NBC News this week, Jeanette Manfra, head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said Russians successfully infiltrated "an exceptionally small number" of voter registration rolls in 21 states.
At the Abu Dhabi summit, Bush said Putin's actions are motivated by his desire to regain "Soviet hegemony," The Associated Press reported.
Separately, Bush also seemed to depart from Trump's hard-line policies on immigration, saying some immigrants are "willing to do jobs that Americans won't do."
"Americans don't want to pick cotton at 105 degrees [Fahrenheit], but there are people who want [to] put food on their family's tables and are willing to do that. We ought to say thank you and welcome," Bush said.
He also criticized Trump's decision to end an Obama-era program that allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to remain in the country and advocated for a permanent fix to keep them, according to the AP.
"America is their home," Bush said, referring to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, more commonly known as "dreamers."
Last month, the White House announced a proposal to provide a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million dreamers in exchange for US$25 billion to fund a wall along the southwest border with Mexico and steps to curb legal immigration. Democrats immediately rejected the proposal.
Bush was speaking at a summit organised by the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica, California-based think tank. The nonprofit was founded by philanthropist Michael Milken known as the "junk bond king." He pleaded guilty in 1990 to six felonies and agreed to pay US$600 million in penalties to settle a massive Wall Street fraud case. He was sentenced to a decade in prison but served less than two years after a judge reduced his sentence.