President Donald Trump spent a second day Wednesday managing the political fallout from his widely criticized meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, shifting stances and mopping up what the White House said were misstatements.
Image: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
His toughness with the longtime American foe in question, Trump said he told the Russian president face-to-face during Monday’s summit to stay out of America’s elections “and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
That rhetoric marked a turnabout from Trump’s first, upbeat description of his sit-down with Putin.
Still, Trump backtracked on whether Russia is currently targeting U.S. elections. When asked the question Wednesday, he answered “no,” a reply that put him sharply at odds with recent public warnings from his own intelligence chief.
Hours later, the White House stepped in to say Trump’s answer wasn’t what it appeared. The zigzagging laid bare the White House’s search for a path out of trouble that has dogged the administration’s discussions of Russia from the start, but spiraled after Trump’s trip to Helsinki.
After days of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, Trump — a politician who celebrates his brash political incorrectness — has appeared more sensitive than usual to outside opprobrium. The scale of the bipartisan outcry at Trump’s stance toward Putin has only been rivaled by his 2017 waffling over condemning white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I let him know we can’t have this,” Trump told CBS News of his conversations with Putin.
“We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Would he hold Putin personally responsible for further election interference?
“I would, because he’s in charge of the country.” The CBS interview came at the end of two days of shifting statements.
On Monday, Trump appeared to question the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. His reservations, expressed 18 months into his presidency and as he stood standing next to Putin on foreign soil, prompted blistering criticism at home, even from prominent fellow Republicans.
On Tuesday, he delivered a scripted statement to “clarify” — his word — his remarks Monday. He said he misspoke by one word when he said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
On Wednesday, he was asked during a Cabinet meeting if Russia was still targeting the U.S., and he answered “no” without elaborating. That came just days after National Intelligence Director Dan Coats sounded an alarm, comparing the cyber-threat today to the way U.S. officials said before 9/11 that intelligence channels were “blinking red” with warning signs that a terror attack was imminent.