One of the hallmarks of President Trump’s style of communication is to never fully close a door anywhere. Every pronouncement is tempered with a “we’ll see” or a “maybe not” or some more specific alternative scenario, allowing Trump to later downplay how far off the mark he might have been.
Sometimes, as with the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election, those tacked-on qualifiers seem to serve another purpose: maintaining doubt in Russia’s culpability for its push to aid his election.
On Thursday morning, Trump was watching “Fox and Friends” again, and celebrated its assertion that he’d been consistent in holding Russia to account on its interference — or, at least, that he’d linked Russia to the hacking in some way. “Trump recognized Russian Meddling MANY TIMES,” the show proclaimed, according to Trump.
“Thank you to @foxandfriends and @FoxNews for actually showing the clips,” he tweeted. “The Fake News wants no part of that narrative!”
The clips are as follows:
They include comments from Jan. 11 and July 7 of 2017 and March 6 of this year. But notice that, in each of those instances, the comments are always qualified: It was Russia or there was “meddling” — but it could have been someone else, too.
So let’s walk through Trump’s history of comments on interference in the election and who might be responsible — culminating in his interview with CBS News’s Jeff Glor on Wednesday night.
July 27, 2016. News conference.
“It’s just a total deflection, this whole thing with Russia.” …
“I watched this guy [Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby] Mook and he talked about we think it was Russia that hacked. Now, first of all was what was said on those that’s so bad but he said I watched it. I think he was live. But he said we think it was Russia that hacked.”
“And then he said — and this is in person sitting and watching television as I’ve been doing — and then he said could be Trump, yeah, yeah. Trump, Trump, oh yeah, Trump. … So it is so farfetched. It’s so ridiculous. Honestly I wish I had that power. I’d love to have that power but Russia has no respect for our country.
And that’s why — if it is Russia, nobody even knows this, it’s probably China, or it could be somebody sitting in his bed. But it shows how weak we are, it shows how disrespected we are. Total — assuming it’s Russia or China or one of the major countries and competitors, it’s a total sign of disrespect for our country.”
Later in that news conference, Trump asked Russia to release emails deleted from Clinton’s private server.
Sept. 9, 2016. Interview with Larry King that aired on the Russia-sponsored RT network.
Trump is asked about possible Russian interference.
“I think it’s probably unlikely. Maybe the Democrats are putting that out — who knows. If they are doing something, I hope that somebody’s going to be able to find out so they can end it. Because that would not be appropriate at all.” …
“I don’t know who hacked. You tell me: Who hacked?”
Sept. 26, 2016. First general election debate.
“As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
“You don’t know who broke in to DNC. … Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don’t know, because the truth is, under President Obama we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over.”
Oct. 9, 2016. Second general election debate.
“I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know — I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.”
Oct. 19, 2016. Third general election debate.
“We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election,” Clinton said. “We have 17 — 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”
“She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else,” Trump replied.
“I am not quoting myself,” Clinton countered.
“She has no idea,” Trump said, later adding, “And our country has no idea.”
Dec. 7, 2016. Interview with Time as part of its “Person of the Year” package.
“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say ‘oh, Russia interfered.’ …
It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey. I believe that it could have been Russia and it could have been any one of many other people. Sources or even individuals.”
Jan. 6, 2017.
President-elect Trump is briefed on the government’s classified evidence pointing to Russia’s involvement.
Jan. 11, 2017. News conference.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And I — I can say that you know when — when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China.” …
“Well, you know, President Putin and Russia put out a statement today that this fake news was indeed fake news. They said it totally never happened. Now, somebody would say, ‘Oh, of course he’s gonna say that.’ I respected the fact that he said that.”
“And I — I’ll be honest, I think if he did have something, they would’ve released it; they would’ve been glad to release it.”
June 23, 2017.
July 7, 2017. News conference with the president of Poland.
“I’ve said it very — I said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. And I won’t be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time. It’s been happening for many, many years. …”
“Mistakes have been made. I agree: I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
“I remember when I was sitting back, listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction; how everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what. That led to one big mess. They were wrong and it led to a mess. So, it was Russia, and I think it was probably others also. And that’s been going on for a long period of time.”
July 12, 2017. Interview with Reuters.
Reuters reported that Trump spent “20 or 25 minutes” discussing interference in his first meeting with Putin.
“I said, ‘Did you do it?’ And he said, ‘No, I did not. Absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not,” Trump told Reuters’ Steve Holland.
Holland asked Trump if he believed that denial.
“Look,” Trump replied. “Something happened and we have to find out what it is, because we can’t allow a thing like that to happen to our election process. So something happened and we have to find out what it is. … Somebody did say if he did do it, you wouldn’t have found out about it. Which is a very interesting point.”
Nov. 11. News conference with the president of Vietnam.
“I’m surprised that there’s any conflict on this. What I said there is that I believe he believes that, and that’s very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.”
“As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership. I believe in our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly. There weren’t seventeen as was previously reported; there were actually four. But they were saying there was seventeen; there were actually four. But as currently led by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.”
March 6. News conference with the prime minister of Sweden.
” Well, the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever. But, certainly, there was meddling and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals. And I think you have to be really watching very closely. You don’t want your system of votes to be compromised in any way. And we won’t allow that to happen.”
Monday. News conference with Putin.
“With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. 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. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server.”
“But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. “
Tuesday. Speaking before a meeting with members of Congress.
Trump said that he’d intended to say “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be” Russia during the news conference with Putin.
“Let me be totally clear in saying that — and I’ve said this many times — I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
Wednesday. Interview with CBS News.
GLOR: “You say you agree with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016.”
TRUMP: “Yeah and I’ve said that before, Jeff. I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.”
GLOR: “But you haven’t condemned Putin, specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?”
TRUMP: “Well I would, because he’s in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
Note that only in that interview with Jeff Glor did Trump do three things: Blame Russia for interference in the election, link Putin to that interference and decline to imply that perhaps others were involved in the interference, too. The three clips cited by Fox News, you may have noticed, didn’t offer an unambiguous critique of Russia.
In the first (Jan. 11), Trump said that “we also get hacked by other countries and other people” and that he “respected” Putin’s denial of interference.
In the second (July 7), Trump said “it could well have been other countries,” and then compared the intelligence agencies’ findings to the flawed intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.
In the third (March 6), Trump didn’t blame Russia for interference at all, saying, instead, that “probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals.”
These are the clips that Trump celebrates as proving the firm line he’s taken against Russia’s actions in 2016. In each, contrary to his assertions on Thursday morning, Trump leaves open that door of doubt — as he has so many times.