A Besieged President Says He Misspoke and Agrees With U.S. Intelligence
Posted July 17, 2018 11:13 p.m. EDT
Updated July 18, 2018 5:02 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Under unrelenting pressure from congressional Republicans, his own advisers, and his allies on Fox News, President Donald Trump abruptly reversed course on Tuesday and claimed he had misspoken during a news conference with President Vladimir Putin about whether Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump, reading from a script, said he believed the assessment of the United States' intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the campaign after having seeming to have accepted Putin’s assertion the day before that Russia was not involved.
The misunderstanding, he said, grew out of an unsuccessful attempt to use a double negative when he answered a question about whether he believed Putin or his intelligence agencies.
“My people came to me,” he said Monday in Helsinki. “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.”
On Tuesday he said that he had misspoken. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” Trump said. “So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good.”
He also insisted that he has “on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections.” He did not mention the far greater number of occasions on which he has sown doubt about whether Russia meddled.
Trump also did not retract or explain his withering attack on the FBI and the Justice Department for investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia. He did not withdraw his assertion, standing next to Putin, that the Russian leader had offered an “extremely strong and powerful” denial of involvement during their 2-1/2-hour meeting. And he did not amend his answer to a question about whether he believed Putin or officials like Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence.
Trump said there were “two thoughts” on the matter, and “I have confidence in both parties.”
By nightfall, Trump appeared to regret the clarification, writing on Twitter that the “meeting between President Putin and myself was a great success, except in the Fake News Media!”
The news conference on Tuesday was a hastily arranged, somewhat haphazard effort to defuse a sudden political crisis that had eclipsed the president’s trip to Europe and his meetings with Putin and the leaders of NATO members and threatened to overwhelm the White House. Dozens of Republicans distanced themselves from the president’s remarks; Democrats called for hearings; and some critics even suggested his conduct, on foreign soil, rose to the level of treason.
Aides said the episode reflected how the persistent questions about Trump’s ties to Russia have all but paralyzed the president. Baffled by his solicitous tone toward Putin, some people close to Trump have concluded that he feels vulnerable to Putin, even if it is in his own mind, rather than because of any damaging information possessed by the Russians.
Even as he walked back his remarks, Trump repeated his assertion that there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and the Russians. That line was scribbled in black marker onto a typewritten sheet of remarks on the table before him. And he also seemed to undercut his own assertion that he had accepted the findings of Russian involvement.
“Could be other people also,” Trump said, appearing to ad-lib. “A lot of people out there.”
That echoed his previous musings that the interference could have been carried out by China, a guy from New Jersey, or “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.”
As in other times Trump has ignited a furor — notably after his equivocal reaction to the violent attacks by white supremacists on left wing activists in Charlottesville, Virginia — his demeanor was at odds with the message he was ostensibly delivering.
At one point during his remarks, the TV lights in the Cabinet Room, where Trump was meeting with lawmakers, switched off, plunging the room into gloomy shadows. “Whoops, they just turned off the lights,” Trump joked. “That must be the intelligence agencies.”
Barely 24 hours earlier, the president had stood next to Putin under the glittering chandeliers of a ballroom in Helsinki, telling aides after the news conference wrapped up that he was happy with how it had gone. In an interview afterward with the Fox News host, Sean Hannity, the president was upbeat, describing the meeting with Putin that preceded it as productive and speaking of a new era of cooperation with Russia.
As he flew home on Air Force One, however, Trump’s mood darkened, according to aides. He watched coverage of himself on a flat-screen television hung above the leather sofas in his office. He read briefing papers, then looked back at the TV. He snapped at aides, complaining that the coverage was “so negative.” The criticism came not just from Democrats or frequent Republican antagonists like Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a staunch defender of the president, urged Trump to clarify his statements, which he described as “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
Several Republicans who normally defend him on television were silent. Among them was Michael Anton, the former communications director for the National Security Council, who called off a long-planned appearance on CNN because he could not “defend” how Trump had conducted himself with Putin, according to the host, Erin Burnett.
Trump’s mood on Air Force One eventually got better, and he watched some of the Home Run Derby staged in Washington as part of the All-Star Game, according to another person briefed on what took place.
But by Tuesday morning, it was clear Trump could not rely on support from even his most die-hard allies. On “Fox & Friends,” his favorite morning TV program, the host, Brian Kilmeade, spoke directly into the camera, as if assuming Trump was watching.
“From the day you came down the escalator, you shocked the world," Kilmeade said. “From November, when everyone had you losing, you shocked the world. It wasn’t because of Russia, but Russia’s goal was to upend the electoral process. They hate democracy.”
He referred to President John F. Kennedy, saying, “Kennedy would love to have undone his first meeting with Khrushchev,” before delivering his pitch: “This is something that needs to be corrected.” Trump tweeted his gratitude to one of his only advocates, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. But he was uncharacteristically subdued, tweeting only three other times in the morning — one of them an anodyne comment about the health of the economy.
He insisted his meeting with Putin had gone “even better” than that with NATO leaders, at which he claimed, erroneously, to have raised billions of dollars in additional funds for the alliance.
Meanwhile, the Senate Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, showed the pressure Republicans were under to respond to Trump. After curtly telling reporters Monday that Russia was not a friend of the United States, McConnell went further, warning that Congress would take measures if Russia continued to meddle.
“The Russians need to know there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016,” he said, “and it better not happen in 2018.”
At the White House, aides added their voices to the chorus of outsiders. The new communications director, Bill Shine, has a particular ability to connect with the president. Aides said he was able to help persuade Trump a change had to be made soon.
The chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was frustrated and urged people to talk to the president, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The more outside voices that Trump heard, his aides believed, the greater chance that he would agree to shift course.
Later in the morning, Trump told aides he realized he needed to make a correction, according to the person who was briefed. His team met briefly to discuss what to say, and the speechwriter, Stephen Miller, drafted something that was rewritten several times.
For days before his meeting in Helsinki, Trump’s aides had cautioned him to be measured and careful in his exchanges with Putin. He and his advisers played down expectations for the meeting in conversations with Europeans. Aides said the donnybrook in Helsinki was less evidence of a plan by Trump to create chaos than a continuation of his missteps earlier in the trip.
In Britain, Trump gave an interview to a British tabloid, The Sun, as a favor to its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. Speaking on the eve of his meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May, he praised her political nemesis, Boris Johnson, and condemned how she had handled the process of separating Britain from the European Union.
Trump appeared not to understand how explosive his words were until after he spoke to the newspaper. He was contrite when he saw May, several people who witnessed their exchanges said. He had not planned to cause damage, but had done so, and it was hard to unwind it.
Now, Trump’s aides fear the worst is still to come. If the past is any guide, they said privately, Trump will spend the coming days digesting the continuing fallout from his encounter with Putin, and he will look for someone other than himself to blame.