President Trump on Tuesday grudgingly sought to inch back his warm remarks about Russia and its leader during a summit in Helsinki a day earlier, saying he had misspoken when he appeared to accept President Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
The strained effort at damage control came more than 24 hours after his rhetorical embrace of Putin at a joint news conference set off a global uproar, including shouts of treason from some Democrats and demands from many Republicans that he mop up the mess. Many of his usual defenders had gone dark in the wake of the summit, and neither Trump nor his aides acknowledged any error until the president took to the cameras Tuesday afternoon.
Trump sought to minimize the impact of Russia’s efforts to interfere in domestic U.S. politics while repeating his frequent denials of cooperation between his campaign and Moscow. And he did not address the broader context of his remarks in Helsinki, which included praise for Putin, attacks on the FBI, and declarations that both Russia and the United States were equally to blame for sour relations.
“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump said Tuesday, flanked at the White House by Republican members of Congress who were preparing for a meeting on tax policy. “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all, and people have seen that, and they’ve seen that strongly.”
The scene carried echoes of past moments of political crisis for Trump, including his comments last year that “both sides” were to blame for a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Then, as now, Trump backtracked with apparent reluctance after a period of public outcry.
Trump’s explanation Tuesday hinged heavily on a single word that he sought to revise 24 hours later.
At the Helsinki news conference, during a disjointed soliloquy about a Democratic National Committee computer server, Trump referred to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and the findings of Russian interference in the election: “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.”
Then at the White House on Tuesday, Trump asserted that he had misspoken by saying “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,” Trump told reporters. “So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself. I have on numerous occasions noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections.”
But Trump’s remarks in Helsinki went much further than his Tuesday explanation suggested. “I have confidence in both parties,” he said Monday, referring to the United States and Russia, and he spoke approvingly of Putin’s suggestion to allow Russian investigators to question Americans they suspected of spying in a quid pro quo.
Trump had also tweeted before the news conference Monday that the United States had been “foolish” and “stupid” in its approach to Russia, and then said during the news conference that “we’re all to blame” for tensions.
The president, according to several people familiar with his mood, was unhappy with the summit coverage, which blanketed cable news and was overwhelmingly negative, including criticisms from some reliable cheerleaders at Fox News and other conservative outlets.
The first glimpse of the White House’s attempts to roll back Trump’s remarks came Monday in a tweet sent from Air Force One as it flew home from Helsinki. Trump wrote that he had “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people” but added that the United States and Russia “cannot exclusively focus on the past” and “must get along.”
One senior White House official said the remarks Tuesday were driven by Trump, who wanted to clarify his comments in Helsinki, and reflected his words with the buy-in of his team. The first draft of the prepared remarks was massaged by Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, according to two people familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of private conversations.
But news photos of papers on the table in front of him also underscored Trump’s apparent reluctance to retreat too far. Scrawled in trademark Sharpie script in the margins of the text were several notes, including one in all-capital letters, “There was no colusion,” a misspelling of “collusion.”
Trump’s body language also signaled pique, as he crossed his arms across his chest while reading and repeatedly looked down at the paper in front of him, affecting a more formal tone when declaring his support for the finding of Russian interference.
The statement came after some nudging from his senior team, including national security adviser John Bolton, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to the two people familiar with the process.
Trump was particularly rattled by a critical tweet Monday from Newt Gingrich, one of the people said. Gingrich, long a stalwart ally, urged the president on social media to “clarify” his Helsinki statements, saying they were “the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.” On Tuesday, Gingrich praised Trump for his response.
Kelly also called some Republican senators Tuesday, according to several people familiar with his conversations, and did what one person described as “damage control.” Some of these people said Kelly urged lawmakers to share their candid opinion about Trump’s Helsinki performance, believing that hearing criticism from trusted allies might help the president understand the magnitude of his blunder. A White House official, however, disputed this account, and other Republicans briefed on the calls said Kelly was merely checking in and listening to their views.
Inside the White House, aides largely retreated to grim silence after Helsinki. “Folks a little freaked out today,” a Republican operative in frequent touch with the administration wrote in a text message Tuesday. “Almost like Zombies about how bad this was.”
Several other Republicans who regularly interact with the White House said the lack of a well-organized communications operation exacerbated the problems, with many unsure who is in charge after a long period of tumult. Talking points to many Republican surrogates, including members of Congress, did not go out until late Monday, after many lawmakers had released critical statements.
“The comments were so egregious that they’ve crossed the tripwire, and you see Republicans speaking out in a way you really haven’t before,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who has clashed with Trump previously and was defeated in his GOP primary by a candidate Trump backed. “This was about the country. It cuts to a nerve in the American psyche and the psyche of the Republican Party.”
Senate Republican leaders raised the possibility of taking legislative action.
“There’s a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pointing to a bill from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to head off foreign interference in the 2018 elections.
In addition, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a top McConnell lieutenant who appeared at a weekly news conference with the Republican leader, mentioned a bill he has introduced to require the State Department to consider within 90 days whether Russia should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“I hope that legislation will be heard soon,” said Gardner.
Among the presidents’ allies, the reaction to his clarification Tuesday was mixed. At least one Republican close to the White House argued that not a single person attacking the president would cease because of his remarks and cautioned that it was “a good example of exactly what not to do in a crisis situation.”
But another said Trump did just what he needed to do, reassuring both his base and Republicans in Congress that he still shares their worldview, especially when it comes to Putin and trusting the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the threat from Russia.
“I’m just glad he clarified it,” Rubio said after Trump’s Tuesday remarks. “I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time, and suffice it to say that for me as a policymaker, what really matters is what we do moving forward.”
Democrats were less sympathetic. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) immediately seized on Trump’s remarks, saying the president “tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday.”
“It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place,” Schumer said in a tweet.
Greg Jaffe, Sean Sullivan and John Wagner contributed to this report.