WASHINGTON D.C. — President Donald Trump says he meant the opposite when he said in Helsinki that he doesn’t see why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Back at the White House on Tuesday, the president told reporters that he said he meant he doesn’t see why Russia “wouldn’t” be responsible.
He also said he accepts the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, but he denied that his campaign had colluded in the effort.
Trump spoke a day after returning to the U.S. to nearly universal condemnation of his performance at Russian President Vladmir Putin’s side in Helsinki. Putin said he wanted Trump to win the race against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In Helsinki, Trump delivered no condemnation of Russia’s interference and refused to say he believes American intelligence agencies over Russia’s denials of meddling.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats spent over a decade in the House and Senate and served as ambassador to Germany during the George W. Bush administration before reluctantly answeringhis friend Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s pleas to join the Trump administration. It is a decision portrayed almost as a personal favor to a friend — and one that he may now be regretting.
On Monday, President Trump issued a stunning rebuke to the US national intelligence community, and DNI Coats directly, when he was asked about the government assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. At a press conference after their two-hour-long meeting in Helsinki, Finland, Trump, standing next to Vladimir Putin, said he did not “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible for the election meddling.
“My people came to me, 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.” It was a shocking statement coming from an American president standing next to a major adversary. Trump essentially sided with Putin, who has a long history of human rights abuses, over his own intelligence officers. Fellow Republicans, including Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, were quick to condemn it. McCain called Monday’s press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president.”
In a remarkable response, Coats sent a statement not long after, standing by his findings. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.” The statement reasserting the intelligence community’s assessment was unprecedented because it was not cleared through official White House channels and reveals a widening chasm between Trump and his intelligence chief.
The conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal declared the news conference “a personal and national embarrassment” for the President, asserting he’d “projected weakness.” Newt Gingrich, ordinarily a reliable voice of support, wrote on Twitter the remarks were “the most serious mistake of his presidency.”
Immediately after his news conference, Trump’s mood was buoyant, people familiar with the matter said. He walked off stage in Helsinki with little inkling his remarks would cause the firestorm they did, and was instead enthusiastic about what he felt was a successful summit.
By the time he’d returned to the White House just before 10 p.m. ET on Monday, however, his mood had soured. Predictably, the President was upset when he saw negative coverage of the summit airing on television aboard Air Force One. It was clear he was getting little support, even from the usual places.
He vented to aides traveling with him, including new communications chief Bill Shine and policy aide Stephen Miller. First lady Melania Trump was also aboard and was involved in some of the discussions, but not all of them, the people familiar with the matter said.
Trump, the first lady, Shine and Miller were seen in animated conversation aboard Marine One when they arrived to the White House South Lawn on Monday evening.
A day later, aides are still wondering what the ultimate fallout will be, including whether any senior officials will resign. Those who were not on the trip are waiting to debrief their colleagues later in the day about what transpired behind the scenes. All are nervously watching Twitter to see if the President attempts further cleanup beyond his tweet after the event Monday when he said he has “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.”