President Donald Trump attempted on Tuesday to clean up his disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that he had misspoken when he said that he saw “no reason” why Russia would have meddled in the 2016 election.
The attempted walk-back came after the White House endured 24 hours of criticism from all sides for Trump’s appearance beside his Russian counterpart, during which he appeared to reject U.S. intelligence conclusions about Kremlin interference in the American democratic process.
“I have full faith in our intelligence agencies,” Trump told reporters Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement. “There is a need for some clarification. It should have been obvious, it ought to have been obvious.”
He added: “In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word “would” instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ …The sentence should’ve been, and I thought it would be maybe a little but unclear on the transcript … ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative. You can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things by itself.”
Trump had been asked directly at Monday’s press conference in Helsinki, Finland if he believed the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election or accepted Putin’s repeated denial of any such involvement.
“My people came to me — [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki, standing next to Putin. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
“I have confidence in both parties,” he added.
But just hours later on Monday night in a set of talking points sent to supporters, the White House started to walk back some of Trump’s more controversial comments. The administration insisted that Trump still had great confidence in his intelligence agencies and that he repeatedly believed the agencies when they said Russia interfered in the U.S. elections.
Yet the White House also noted, in those same talking points, that Trump would not allow the past to mar any future relationship between Russia and the U.S., the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
The about-face was Trump’s latest after a week-long trip to Europe that troubled international allies and left Democrats and Republicans on their heels.
After appearing to threaten to pull out of NATO on Thursday, Trump then took the stage to praise the organization and declare it a “fine-tuned machine.” That night, as Trump enjoyed a formal dinner hosted by Prime Minister Theresa May, the British newspaper The Sun published an interview in which Trump was harshly critical of May’s handling of Brexit negotiations and suggested her rival Boris Johnson would do better.
The next day, Trump declared that he had not criticized May at all.
Even for Trump, who is notoriously prone to switching positions and delivering falsehoods, the series of reversals marked an unusual degree of chaos.
Former President Barack Obama appeared to acknowledge the barrage of news in a speech in South Africa on Tuesday, saying that “each day’s news cycle is bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Trump defended his Helsinki comments even as the criticisms piled up.
“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy,” the president tweeted Tuesday.
But opprobrium for Trump publicly siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election came from typically loyal quarters, including the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.
“Monday’s joint press conference was a personal and national embarrassment,” the Journal editorial board wrote. “On stage with the dictator whose election meddling has done so much harm to his Presidency, Mr. Trump couldn’t even bring himself to say he believed his own intelligence advisers like Dan Coats over the Russian strongman.”
Longtime Trump fundraiser and short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN on Tuesday that Trump needs to “reverse course immediately.”
“Trump’s made a very big mistake here,” Scaramucci told anchor Alisyn Camerota. “If you’re loyal to the president – which I happen to be very loyal to the president – loyalty right now requires you to tell the truth and sit with him and explain to him the optics of the situation, why the optics are bad.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a steadfast Trump supporter who recently published a book heaping praise on the president – and whose wife Callista is Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican – called on the president to undo his comments.
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter shortly after the press conference. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
With other Trump defenders, the most obvious sign of their discomfort was silence. CNN’s Erin Burnett said Monday that former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton had canceled an appearance about Trump’s appearance with Putin “because he said he can’t defend it.”
As of Tuesday morning, there were no media-bashing statements blasted out by press secretary Sarah Sanders – and no daily briefing scheduled to try to reset the narrative. Donald Trump Jr.’s usually combative Twitter account was largely subdued.
Trump on Monday stood alongside Putin and called the two-hour-long talks that preceded the joint appearance “direct, open, deeply productive,” indicated that the U.S. was to blame for tensions between the two nations, avoided rebuking Putin for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and even suggested the countries work together on cybersecurity.
The news conference sparked an immediate outcry, including from many Republicans who escalated their criticism of Trump’s coziness toward Putin. Arizona Sen. John McCain pointedly called Trump’s comments “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” while his fellow Arizonan Sen. Jeff Flake called it “shameful.”
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch reasserted his support for intelligence conclusions about the 2016 election. “Russia interfered in the 2016 election,” he said in a statement. “Our nation’s top intelligence agencies all agree on that point. From the President on down, we must do everything in our power to protect our democracy by securing future elections from foreign influence and interference, regardless of what Vladimir Putin or any other Russian operative says.”
Trump himself at first remained defiant, thanking Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for defending his comments. And even in his prepared statement, he cast blame on Obama and his intelligence heads over their handling of Russian meddling in the run-up to the 2016 vote.
“I have the strongest respect for our intelligence agencies, headed by my people,” Trump added again, after repeatedly bashing former President Barack Obama and his handling of the Russian interference.