A day after publicly siding with Vladimir Putin over U.S. Intelligence on the question of whether Moscow had interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, President Donald Trump defended his efforts to improve relations with Russia, even as he back tracked slightly to say that “I accept” the conclusions of intelligence officials on Russian meddling.
In remarks to reporters at the White House, the President said he had simply misspoke, dropping the word “not” in a sentence about his view on Russian responsibility for election interference in 2016.
“I need to make a clarification,” Mr. Trump said, reading from a prepared script before television cameras, as he met with a group GOP lawmakers.
“I accept our Intelligence Community’s conclusion,” the President said – but he swiftly raised the possibility that actors other than Russia might have been involved, something not supported by the CIA and Congress.
“Could be other people also – there’s a lot of people out there,” the President said.
President Trump’s explanation was that he meant to say, “I don’t know any reason why it would not be Russia,” but that he only said, “I don’t know any reason why it would be Russia.”
The comments came as the President faced a bipartisan firestorm of criticism from Capitol Hill, as lawmakers said the President was wrong to have stood on the same stage with Putin, and downplayed the Russian threat.
Mr. Trump defended his effort to deal with Putin, arguing “that diplomacy and engagement is better than hostility and conflict,” as he accused the press of biased reporting on his European trip.
“The press covered it quite inaccurately,” Mr. Trump added, “They said I insulted everybody,” as the President made clear he was thrilled with efforts to deal with Putin, casting that as more important than his previous meetings with European leaders at the NATO summit.
The President remarks came as Democrats in Congress all but accused President Trump of being a Russian Intelligence asset.
“Is the President an agent of a foreign power?” wrote Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) on Twitter.
“He wrapped his arms around Vladimir Putin,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) on the House floor.
“When are the Republicans in Congress going to provide a check on President Trump?” asked Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
“It’s embarrassing and alarming that the U.S. President would believe the Russian President instead of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Meanwhile, many GOP lawmakers made it clear that while they supported the President’s summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, there was an acknowledgement that Mr. Trump’s statements which sided with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 elections were not helpful.
“I think anybody that watched that press conference – including the President himself – would say that it was not his finest hour,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), as some conservative voices expressed frustration with Mr. Trump.
“I don’t agree with President Trump’s comments,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL). “The evidence from our national security agencies is clear; Russia deliberately tried to undermine our republic. This is unacceptable.”
“We have seen time and again that Russia will stop at nothing to interfere with and undermine our system of government,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).
“Let’s be very clear, so that everybody knows, Russia did interfere with our elections,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, who bluntly denounced the Putin regime, clearly labeling him as an enemy of the West.
“Russia is trying to undermine democracy itself,” the Speaker added, seemingly inviting action by Congress on new sanctions against Moscow.
“Vladimir Putin does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin does not share our values,” the Speaker said.
Senate Republican leaders meanwhile went out of their way to proclaim their public support for European allies in NATO, trying to send a much different message than what was transmitted in person by President Trump during his visit last week.
“We believe the European Union countries are our friends, and the Russians are not,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he heaped praise on NATO, and the need to preserve the North Atlantic alliance.
On the issue of election interference, the message was also different from what the President had said in Helsinki.
“Clearly, the Russians tried to interfere in our elections,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).