Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on Sunday doubled down on the connection he made between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Morell told ABC's "This Week" that he had "no doubt" Putin viewed Trump as an "unwitting agent" of Russia, and noted that as a trained KGB intelligence operative, Putin had manipulated people "much smarter than Donald Trump."
"He played this perfectly, right? He saw that Donald Trump wanted to be complimented. He complimented him. That led Donald Trump to then compliment Vladimir Putin and to defend Vladimir Putin's actions in a number of places around the world. And Donald Trump didn't even understand, right, that Putin was playing him," Morell said.
"So in Putin's mind, I have no doubt that Putin thinks he's an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation, although Putin would never say that."
Morell, who worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations during his career with the CIA, first denounced Trump in an op-ed published in the New York Times. He endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the process.
"Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin," Morell wrote. "Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States."
The editorial also delineated the reasons why Morell chose to publicly back Clinton for president. He lauded the former secretary of state's "commitment to our nation's security" and maintained that he "never saw her bring politics into the Situation Room."
Morell is currently a senior counselor at the advisory firm Beacon Global Strategies. The firm was co-founded by Philippe Reines and Andrew Shapiro, who worked with Clinton when she was secretary of state. He resigned his position as an intelligence, national security and counterterrorism analyst with CBS News prior to endorsing Clinton.
Trump responded to Morell's criticism Sunday evening via Twitter, calling the former CIA head a "lightweight" and a "total Clinton flunky."
Morell's assessment of how Putin views Trump comes after weeks of controversy over the extent of Trump's alleged connection to Putin. The businessman-turned-candidate has offered praise for the Russian leader several times in interviews and on Twitter.
Many intelligence experts chastised Trump after he called for Russia to "find" Clinton's missing emails, decrying the prospect of foreign hackers interfering in a U.S. election. Michael Hayden, who served as NSA and CIA director under President George W. Bush, said it was possible that "he doesn't know what he's talking about."
"If he is talking about the State Department e-mails on her server, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to steal sensitive American government information," Hayden told Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake. "If he is talking about the allegedly private emails that she destroyed, he is inviting a foreign intelligence service to violate the privacy of an individual protected by the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution."
Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort told Fox News that the candidate was "speaking in a sarcastic way."
When asked last week about the questions surrounding the two men, Trump disputed the semantics of the word "relationship," contending that he did not "know what it means by having a relationship." He insisted that Putin "treats me with great respect" but claimed that he did not know him.
These comments are a departure from what he told MSNBC in 2013.
"I do have a relationship and I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today," Trump said at the time, referring to the Miss Universe Organization that he formerly owned.
When asked if the matter could be settled by releasing his tax returns, proving that he does not have financial ties to Russia, the candidate said again he would not due to an IRS audit. The IRS has said that an audit does not legally preclude him from releasing his tax returns.