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Would It or Wouldn’t It Be Russia: Trump Goes Double Negative

WASHINGTON — It was really just a mix-up, he insisted. Like confusing “affect” and “effect,” but for unprecedented global cyberaggression.

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WASHINGTON — It was really just a mix-up, he insisted. Like confusing “affect” and “effect,” but for unprecedented global cyberaggression.

“I thought I made myself very clear,” President Donald Trump said, alternately riffing and note-reading on Tuesday from his chair in the White House Cabinet Room. “I came back, and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?'”


Trump had just returned from Finland, where he sided against his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump had said Monday. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

And by that, Trump said on Tuesday, more than 24 hours later, he meant the exact opposite. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,'” Trump said. “Sort of a double negative.”

He looked up at the cameras, then back down. “So,” he concluded, “you can put that in. And I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

It did not. And in an instant, Trump had joined the pantheon of dubious executive word-parsing and malapropisms, a bipartisan enterprise with decades of entries, if little precise precedent for Tuesday’s excuse-making.

President Bill Clinton once wondered “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” as he strained to weather the Monica Lewinsky affair.

President George W. Bush once observed that the United States’ enemies “never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people — and neither do we.”

For Trump, typically loathe to correct himself, a thorough revisionism seemed to register as the only option Tuesday. But, as ever, clarity was elusive. At various points, he both suggested that what he had said beside Putin “should have been obvious, I thought it would be obvious” and again raised doubts about what he truly believed.

“Could be other people, also,” he said, after appearing to embrace the intelligence agencies’ consensus that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. “There’s a lot of people out there.”

By the end, many in Washington seemed skeptical that there had been much of a reversal, imagining how other moments in history might have been undermined by linguistic excess with negative words.

Speak softly and don’t not carry a big stick.

Ask not what your country cannot not do for you.

“'Mr. Gorbachev,'” Matt Viser, a journalist at The Boston Globe, joked on Twitter, “'don’t not tear down this wall.'”

Trump appeared confident in his powers of persuasion, repeatedly arguing that he thought he had been clear. But as he pledged support for his intelligence officials, the lights in the Cabinet Room went down, darkening his face before the cameras.

“Must be the intelligence agencies,” he said, folding his arms.

“That was strange,” he added. “But that’s OK.”

Soon, he returned to his notes, with a message in the margin. “THERE WAS NO COLUSION,” was scribbled, seemingly missing an “L.”