President Trump gave arguably his strongest interview to date Wednesday about Vladimir Putin being culpable for Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
But it was still completely halfhearted.
Throughout the interview with "CBS Evening News's" Jeff Glor — including at its most crucial juncture — Trump made it obvious he isn't totally on board with the U.S. intelligence community's findings about what happened two years ago. He wants credit for saying the right things, but he's only willing to go so far.
Let's take it piece by piece, starting with blaming Putin:
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.
The U.S. intelligence community has said Putin not only presided over this operation or blessed it; it says he directly ordered it. “We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” read the January 2017 report.
Trump is suggesting that Putin is to blame simply because he, like Trump, is responsible for things that happen on his watch. That's really downgrading Putin's role. It's like charging someone with manslaughter when they were the mastermind behind the murder plot.
On to the next:
GLOR: What did you say to him?
TRUMP: Very strong on the fact that we can't have meddling, we can't have any of that. Now look, we're also living in a grown-up world. Will a strong statement — you know — President Obama supposedly made a strong statement — nobody heard it — what they did hear is a statement he made to Putin's very close friend. And that statement was not acceptable. Didn't get very much play, relatively speaking. But that statement was not acceptable. But I let him know we can't have this, we're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be.
Trump is asked about how hard he pressed Putin, and he immediately — again — reverts to how pointless it all is. And then blames Obama. (His reference is to Obama on a hot mic in 2012 discussing having more “flexibility” in dealing with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after that year's election.) Trump could apply all kinds of leverage here if he wanted to, via threatened sanctions or something else; it seems he doesn't want to. And he is sticking to that fallacy.
Now on to the L-word:
GLOR: But he denies it, so if you believe U.S. intelligence agencies, is Putin lying to you?
TRUMP: I don't want to get into whether he's lying; I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted. I think that [Director of National Intelligence] Daniel Coats is excellent; I think that [CIA Director] Gina [Haspel] is excellent. I think we have excellent people in the agencies. And when they tell me something, it means a lot.
What Coats and Haspel are telling Trump is that Putin is lying. These days in Washington, there is a lot of dancing around when it comes to whether someone technically lied, but the position of the U.S. intelligence community is that Putin ordered the interference, and therefore knows about it. If he denies it, that means he lied. But Trump isn't willing to say that.
Ipso facto, he's not echoing his own intelligence community. Trump can't bring himself to accuse Putin of lying — just as he can't blame him directly for the interference.
Trump was then asked directly about Coats, whose statements he has contradicted thrice over the past several days:
GLOR: Coats said the threat is ongoing. Do you agree with that?
TRUMP: Well, I'd accept — I mean he's an expert. This is what he does. He's been doing a very good job. I have — tremendous faith in Daniel Coats. And if he says that, I would accept that. I will tell you, though, it better not be. It better not be.
It would be easy for Trump to say, “Yes, the threat is ongoing.” Instead, he attributes it to Coats and says he doesn't dispute it. Without the rest of the interview, this would be a small point. Alongside the rest of it, it fills out a the picture of Trump not being totally on board.
And, finally, the overarching question:
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.
Trump has indeed said this multiple times before — including in November 2017 — but he has also gone on to repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community's findings, despite those assurances. Monday's news conference with Putin was the highest-profile instance of that. Trump's questioning earlier Wednesday that Russia was still interfering was another.
This is the pattern Trump has established of not totally accepting the intelligence community's findings, even when he seems to come close to it. And the CBS interview might be the clearest example to date of how little he truly believes what he's forced to say.