Donald Trump has backtracked on his support of Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian involvement in election meddling, claiming he “misspoke” during a press conference with the Russian leader and “accepts” US intelligence reports that Moscow sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Facing a storm of protest from across Congress for undermining US intelligence services by appearing to side with Mr Putin, Mr Trump said he needed to “clarify” his remarks in a rare climbdown that also highlighted his “confidence” in US intelligence. The US president often repeats false statements rather than correcting himself, but it appears that the anger from Republican leadership – and the suggestion some members may ask Congress to censure Mr Trump – proved too great.
“I thought it would be obvious but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn’t: In a key sentence ... I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’,” Mr Trump said ahead of a meeting with his cabinet and Congressional Republicans. He clarified: “The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why... it wouldn’t be Russia’”. He said it was an issue with the transcript and he used “sort of a double negative”.
“Let me be totally clear in saying that … I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Mr Trump said. Although in typical fashion, he seemed to undermine his own statement by adding: “It could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”
However, during Monday’s press conference with Mr Putin – which followed more than two hours of one-on-one discussions between the pair - Mr Trump went far further than the one quote of support.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Mr Trump said, standing next to Mr Putin. For his part, the Russian president admitted he had wanted the real estate mogul to win against Hillary Clinton.
As we was flying home from the meeting with Mr Putin with Helsinki, Mr Trump faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans, as well as the Democrats and his usual critics. “Shameful”, “disgraceful” and “weak” were a few of the comments. Republican Senator John McCain was particularly visceral – calling the summit “a recent low point” in the history of the presidency and a “tragic mistake”.
Before his “clarification” Mr Trump had tweeted in defence of his meeting with Mr Putin, referencing his meetings with Nato members in Brussels last week – where he clashed with allies over the amount of money each member spends on defence.
“While I had a great meeting with Nato, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia,” he said. “Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy.”
Even given the U-turn by Mr Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said that President Trump is trying to “squirm” away from his comments because he did not have the courage to stand up to Mr Putin at the Helsinki summit.
Mr Schumer called the clarification “24 hours too late and in the wrong place”. The senior Democrat said if the president cannot directly tell Mr Putin he is wrong and “our intelligence agencies are right, it’s ineffective”.
Minutes before Mr Trump spoke from the White House Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell issued a public reassurance to US allies in Nato and EU with whom Mr Trump clashed during his trip to Europe last week.
“The European countries are our friends, and the Russians are not,” Mr McConnell said.
That followed House Majority Paul Ryan, who said on Tuesday morning that he is willing to consider additional sanctions on Russia, but there’s no rush to act. Mr Ryan underscored that Russia was involved in the 2016 election meddling and is a “menacing government” that does not share US values.
“Let’s be very clear just so everybody knows: Russia did meddle with our elections,” Mr Ryan said. “What we intend to do is make sure they don’t get away with it again and also to help our allies.”
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a vocal Trump critic, had said earlier on Tuesday that he is preparing to introduce a bipartisan resolution to reaffirm Senate support for the finding of the US intelligence community that Russia interfered with the 2016 election.
Mr Flake said the resolution would basically make clear: “We believe the intelligence, regardless of what [Mr] Putin is saying.” Mr Flake added that the resolution would also call for hearings or briefings to find out the impact of Mr Trump’s private session with Mr Putin on foreign policy.
For many critics the biggest taboo Mr Trump broke was of criticising one’s own agencies while overseas.
“You just do not see leaders, whether it’s the CEOs of companies, or the heads of countries, attacking their own side while on foreign soil, and with the leader of a hostile country standing there,” Jeanne Zaino, Professor of Political Science at Iona College in New York, told The Independent.
Yet Ms Zaino said that for all the Republican anger at Mr Trump, there was little they could do. While there has been some talk of censuring the president or bring a resolution in defence of the intelligence agencies, she said the chief concern was about the upcoming midterm elections, and in particular the Republican primaries which frequently attract non-mainstream candidates who may receive the backing of Mr Trump’s core of supporters. She said: “They do not want to alienate Republican voters.”
Seemingly aware of this, Mr Trump insisted from the White House that he has “full faith in our intelligence agencies”, despite his repeated tweets attacking former members of the intelligence services such as James Comey and Andrew McCabe.
Mr Trump also said his administration is “doing everything in our power” to stop any possible interference in the 2018 midterm elections coming up in November. However, he went on to blame Barack Obama for the meddling, another familiar target, saying claiming his administration did nothing over knowledge of the interference as they thought Hillary Clinton would win.
Mr Trump also confirmed he and Mr Putin discussed a range of issues including North Korea and nuclear weapons, about which he said “getting along” with Moscow when they and the US share “90 per cent” of nuclear weapons is “not a bad thing ... In fact [it is] a very good thing”.