Six days ago, President Trump held a news conference to walk back comments he made suggesting that he did not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw a plan to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
“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,” Trump said in that statement.
Trump then said he realized, after seeing the backlash to his news conference, that one statement needed clarifying. That's when he offered his now-infamous “double-negative” defense. “In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn't.' . . . The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ Sort of a double negative.”
But on Sunday, he suggested that the investigation was "all a big hoax."
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to clarify the tweet during Monday's press briefing.
"The president is referencing the collusion component. Once again, the president has faith in the intelligence that suggests and maintains that Russia was involved in the election," she said.
Then, in a Monday tweet, he walked back his earlier attempt at a cleanup.
Trump falsely claimed that a dossier by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele “was responsible for starting” the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.” He went on to blast the dossier, calling it “fake” and “dirty” before declaring the investigation headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III a “witch hunt.”
The truth is that the investigation began in July 2016 when Australian officials informed their U.S. counterparts that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Russia had “dirt” on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But FBI officials did not receive the dossier from Steele until that September.
It shouldn't be surprising that just days after Trump declared that he had confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies, he would attack them. One of the areas where Trump has been most consistent is in dismissing the investigation and the individuals in the intelligence community who have concluded that Russia could not be trusted. And a large percentage of Americans seem not to be pleased about how he handled the summit with Putin.
More Americans — 50 percent — disapproved of Trump's performance at the Helsinki conference than those who approved — 30 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. But Republicans gave Trump pretty high marks and appear to have increasing confidence in the president's ability to lead on the global stage. According to the poll, 3 in 4 Republicans said U.S. leadership has “gotten stronger” under Trump. That number was 53 percent in November.
Perhaps it was this support from his party — 70 percent of Republicans approved of Trump's summit performance, according to a recent CBS poll — that led Trump to go back to what he has believed all along: that U.S. intelligence cannot be trusted. While conservatives were once known for their relatively high confidence in law enforcement, Trump has transformed the perspectives of many people in the party.
This pivot back reveals that Trump may also still believe that Putin can be trusted. And that is of great concern to those keeping their eyes on Putin's planned White House visit in the fall. We still don't know what the two presidents discussed and may have agreed to in Helsinki.
To some degree, it is good to know what the president believes about the intelligence on Russia. But the lack of knowledge about the ramifications of what he thinks has many people concerned.