President Donald J. Trump moved Tuesday to limit the damage from his summit with Vladimir Putin, claiming he misspoke in appearing to accept the Russian leader’s denial of election meddling — in a rebuke to U.S. intelligence chiefs.
At their Helsinki meeting a day earlier, Trump failed to challenge Putin over the 2016 presidential election, seeming to accept at face value the strongman’s denial that Moscow interfered in a bid to undermine the Democrat Hillary Clinton. But faced with outrage at home, and even allies demanding he reverse course, Trump — in an extraordinary postscript to the summit — sought to walk back his remarks.
BREAKING: President Trump claims he misspoke while discussing election meddling during news conference with Putin: "In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't.' … The sentence should've been: 'I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia'" pic.twitter.com/2bA9EionD1
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 17, 2018
At his joint press conference with Putin, Trump had acknowledged that his intelligence chiefs believe Russia hacked and leaked emails damaging to his rival Clinton. But, insisting he won the race fair and square, the Republican said: “I have President Putin, he just said it is not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
One day on, however, Trump said he had “realized that there is a need for some clarification,” before launching into a fumbling explanation.
“In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’,” Trump said, speaking at the White House ahead of a meeting with Republican lawmakers.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative,” he added — offering a laborious clarification that he repeated several times over.
The U.S. leader also reiterated what he said was his “full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies.”
“I have felt very strongly that while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign has increasingly put pressure on the White House, and the president — who regards it as an attack on his legitimacy — has dubbed it a “witch hunt.”
But the investigation continues to progress, resulting in the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents on Friday — timing that was embarrassing in light of the upcoming summit.
Trump initially sounded a defensive note on Tuesday, insisting his meeting with Putin had been “even better” than his one last week with traditional allies NATO — a testy gathering seen as having badly strained trans-Atlantic ties. But the U.S. president found precious little support for his decision not to confront the Russian leader.
“He has to reverse course immediately and he’s gotta get out there as soon as possible before the concrete starts to set on this,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN.
Former House speaker and longtime Trump ally Newt Gingrich put it yet more bluntly.
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” he tweeted as Trump headed home. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
Trump’s performance at the summit even came under fire from the hosts at Fox News, usually a reliable defender of the president.
“No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus,” Fox anchor and Fox & Friends co-host Abby Huntsman — the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Russia — wrote on Twitter.
And former President Barack Obama, who has remained above the political fray since leaving office, appeared to allude to the events of the previous day during a rare public appearance Tuesday, saying that: “Strongman politics are ascendant.”
While Trump was not entirely without defenders, the bipartisan consensus was broadly hostile to his stance in Helsinki — as the top Republican in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan made clear at a press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
“We stand by our NATO allies and all those countries who are facing Russian aggression,” Ryan said. “Vladimir Putin does not share our interests, Vladimir Putin does not share our values.”
“We just conducted a yearlong investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections. They did interfere in our elections. It’s really clear,” he said. “Russia is trying to undermine democracy itself.”