Trump Says He Misspoke on Russia Meddling
President Trump, seeking to stanch a national furor, said on Tuesday that he misspoke at his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, and meant to say that he does in fact see Russia as the culprit that interfered in the 2016 election, just as U.S. intelligence agencies have found.
The president's new version was unlikely to satisfy many critics. It is undercut by his full, widely watched remarks on Monday, which gave weight to Putin's denials while criticizing the United States.
To many, Trump had missed his chance to speak truth to power alongside Russia's president. He made his correction to reporters at the White House, as he sat alongside Republican lawmakers.
In his attempt to walk back his remarks in Finland, Trump said he accepts the consensus of American intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election. Yet in a sign that he cannot fully accept those findings — seeing them as a challenge to his election legitimacy — he added that the perpetrators "could be other people also." That assertion is not supported by known intelligence.
At a Helsinki news conference, as Putin looked on, Trump said the following to a reporter's question about whether he believed U.S. intelligence agencies, or Putin's denials of interference: "My people came to me...they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be" Russia.
On Tuesday, however, he said this: "The sentence should have been 'I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be' Russia."
"I have the strongest respect for our intelligence agencies, headed by my people," Trump told the reporters at a hastily scheduled session ahead of his meeting with some House Republicans about additional tax cuts.
He also said, "We're doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018," referring to midterm elections.
Trump afterward ignored questions that reporters shouted, including whether he would criticize Putin, as White House aides pushed them out of the Cabinet room.
The day before, the president had blamed the United States for sour relations with Russia and criticized the FBI, Democrats, Hillary Clinton and the special counsel's investigation of Russia's election activities and possible Trump campaign complicity — all as Putin, occasionally smiling, stood feet away in the Finland presidential palace.
The scene almost instantly drew condemnation as it played out on television screens in the U.S. Trump, who repeatedly praised and deferred to Putin, was criticized by foreign policy and national security veterans as weak, an insult that is particularly galling to him.
In two subsequent interviews with Fox News and in his tweets after the summit, Trump sounded defensive, and more surprised and frustrated by the reaction than contrite. He did not, however, make any attempt to correct his remarks until more than 24 hours later.
"I came back and I said: 'What is going on? What's the big deal?" Trump said Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he was not buying Trump's correction.
"President Trump tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday. It's 24 hours late and in the wrong place," he said. "If the president can't say directly to President Putin that he is wrong and we are right and our intelligence agencies are right, it's ineffective and, worse, another sign of weakness."
Trump faced growing pressure from Republicans to either recant his remarks — an unlikely act for this president — or at least change the subject to one that unites his party, such as tax cuts or the pending Senate confirmation of conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
"It's too early to say if this will have any consequence on their elections, but they're clearly navigating that minefield very cautiously," said Alice Stewart, a Republican consultant who had private conversations with multiple lawmakers after the Helsinki news conference. "It's really hard for anyone to come out and say that meeting was a success for the president or certainly this country, so many are reserving their comments."
For many Republicans, the issue goes beyond politics. Opposition to Russia's aggressive behavior and authoritarian rule has long been a core aspect of party ideology.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) quickly condemned Trump's comments in Helsinki, though he did not name Trump. "The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally," he said.
And while Ryan reiterated that he thought special counsel Robert S. Mueller III should be allowed to finish his probe, he did not promise to let up on House Republicans' attempts to undermine the investigation by echoing Trump's claims of bias.
The speaker and other House Republican leaders tried to change the subject to taxes and the economy during their weekly news conference. But Ryan was bombarded with questions about Trump's Helsinki performance, whether it damaged American interests and whether Congress would do anything beyond expressing regret.
"I have not spoken to him," Ryan said. "I put out a statement yesterday, within minutes after that press conference. And I think that statement speaks for itself."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed support for NATO allies that Trump had criticized during an alliance summit days before his meeting with Putin. McConnell, like many Republicans, stopped short of criticizing Trump explicitly.
"The Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018," McConnell told reporters.
Signaling Republicans' own efforts at damage control in the wake of Trump's Helsinki performance, McConnell said there might be a vote on a bill sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democrat, that would create punishments if Russia interferes in future elections. He made no commitment to bringing the measure up, however.
Democrats were eager to keep the subject alive, calling for hearings, resolutions reaffirming American intelligence assessments, and measures lending money to states to protect their voting systems from hacking. One proposal was for a hearing to question the U.S. interpreter who, along with a Russian translator, was one of two people in the room with Trump and Putin on Monday when the leaders met for more than two hours with no aides or note-takers — a break in typical summit protocol.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Trump's efforts at damage control "embarrasses our nation even further."
"After watching the President cower in front of Putin, the American people now deserve to know what Trump will do now," Pelosi said in a statement.
"Will he finally take on Putin? Has he called Putin to convey his newfound confidence in our Intelligence Community? Will he demand the extradition of the 12 recently indicted Russian nationals and finally enforce the bipartisan sanctions against Russia?"
Democrats were also beginning to use the issue in their campaigns to win control of the House. For example, Max Rose, a Democrat trying to unseat Rep. Dan Donovan in a district centered around the Staten Island borough of New York City, called his opponent a "spineless doormat" in the face of Trump's transgressions.
"At a moment where members of both parties are rightfully calling out the president's actions yesterday, Congressman Dan Donovan cannot muster up the courage to challenge the president when he defended a hostile foreign power instead of standing up for America and the people who risk their lives to keep us safe," Rose said in a statement.
Donovan, according to his office, has consistently agreed with the assessments that Russia meddled while calling for an end to the probe "so detractors can stop using it as a political football to undermine the president."
Donovan's fellow New York Republican, Rep. Peter King, often the president's supporter, called Trump's comments "indefensible" in a Fox News interview. King also took issue with Trump for expressing openness to Putin's invitation to have Russian intelligence officials cooperate on the U.S. prosecution of Russian officers indicted on Friday.
"That's like bringing ISIS into a terrorism task force meeting," he said, referring to the extremist group Islamic State.
Still, many Republican lawmakers seemed to avoid direct criticism of Trump and instead focused their criticism on Putin. CNN said dozens of Republican members of Congress rebuffed invitations to react to Trump's performance at the Helsinki summit.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican consultant, said many Republicans see too much risk in taking Trump on, even if the president's behavior may cause some worry.
"There have been so many political flashpoints assigned by the media … that makes your head spin," he added. "And two weeks later we don't even remember them."