Trump-Putin meeting: Trump says he accepts U.S. intelligence on Russian interference in 2016 election following uproar over Helsinki comments
by John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez
Seeking to quell mounting criticism after the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump on Tuesday said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election.
“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. There was no collusion at all,” Trump said before a meeting with Republican members of Congress at the White House.
Trump also said he misspoke at the joint news conference with Putin on Monday and that he meant to say he didn’t have any reason to doubt Russia interfered in the election.
“So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things,” he told reporters.
Trump’s remarks followed a morning tweet in which he blamed the media for negative coverage of Monday’s news conference and said that his meeting with Putin had gone “even better” than a meeting with NATO allies the week before.
“While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia,” Trump wrote, referring to his efforts to increase defense spending by U.S. allies. “Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!”
While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2018
During a remarkable 46-minute joint news conference at the end of Monday’s summit in Helsinki, Trump would not challenge Putin’s claim that his government played no role in trying to sabotage the U.S. election in 2016, despite the indictment Friday of 12 Russian intelligence officers, stemming from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of election meddling.
Trump’s performance prompted a wave of condemnation, including from many in his own party. On Tuesday, a growing number of Republicans called for him to take swift action to embrace the U.S. intelligence community’s findings about Russian interference and limit the damage from Helsinki.
Speaking with reporters outside the Senate chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not mention Trump by name but sought to reassure allies in Europe that the United States stands with them and warned that Russian interference better not happen again.
“We believe the European Union countries are our friends and the Russians are not. They’ve demonstrated that in all the obvious ways over the last few years with the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, not to mention the indisputable evidence that they tried to impact the 2016 election,” McConnell said.
Pressed about Trump’s remarks in Helsinki, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also declined to criticize the president on Tuesday, focusing his response on Russia and Putin.
“Let me be really clear,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference. “We stand by our NATO allies and all those countries facing Russian aggression.”
The speaker, who put out a statement Monday supporting the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, reiterated that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election but added that it had no material effect on the results.
Ryan, however, declined to say whether he agreed with Republicans who have called on Trump to clarify his comments.
On morning television shows and social media, several Trump supporters urged Trump to explain to the nation why he appeared to side with Putin instead of the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded that Russia was responsible.
“He’s got to speak out about it, and he’s got to reverse course immediately,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said during an appearance on CNN. “The optics of this situation are a disaster. . . . If he doesn’t reverse course on this, he will eventually lose people who want to support him.”
Scaramucci, who said he still considers himself loyal to Trump, recommended that the president huddle with “his smartest, most loyal aides” and craft a statement making clear he understands there was Russian interference in the election.
Trump could do that while continuing to insist there was no collusion between the Russians and his campaign, Scaramucci said.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to capitalize on the outcry over Trump’s performance.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the chamber’s Republican leaders to schedule hearings on what occurred in Helsinki.
“Our Republican colleagues cannot just go, ‘tsk-tsk-tsk,’” Schumer said. “They need to act.”
Schumer said he was particularly concerned about what Trump might have said to Putin during a closed-door, two-hour meeting between the two at which only their interpreters were present.
“The American people deserve to know what’s happened. Our security is at risk,” Schumer said.
In a letter to colleagues, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outlined several steps by the party to draw attention to Trump’s meeting with Putin.
“Yesterday, President Trump cowered before President Putin, and engaged in a dangerous, disgraceful and damaging show of his Blame America First policy,” she wrote. “His total weakness in the presence of Putin proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically.”
Pelosi said Democrats would introduce a resolution based on Ryan’s statement Monday backing the U.S. intelligence findings and would seek to force a vote to increase funds for election security.
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, sought to capitalize on the episode by sending out a fundraising solicitation asking for donations to help elect Democrats “who will hold this reckless president accountable.”
Around 9 a.m. Tuesday, Trump tweeted about the summit for the first time since his return to Washington the night before. He thanked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the few prominent Republicans who have defended his performance at Monday’s news conference.
Earlier in the morning, Paul defended Trump on CBS, saying he has been the focus of a “partisan investigation” over Russia and is “sensitive to that.”
Other Republicans weren’t as forgiving.
“It was a really bad day for the president,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said Tuesday morning on CNN. “I think President Trump was wrong yesterday in a major way, and I think it was a very embarrassing press conference.”
Kinzinger said Trump needed to speak to the nation about what happened — in person and not on Twitter.
“You need to come out today and very much clarify this,” he said.
Kinzinger’s pleading echoed former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who typically defends Trump.
“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Gingrich tweeted on Monday. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whom Trump recently endorsed for reelection, was asked during an appearance on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday whether he thinks Trump should clarify his comments at the news conference.
“I look for the president to maybe illuminate a little further the progress that was made in the closed-door session,” Gaetz said, referring to the Monday meeting between Trump and Putin.
In an earlier tweet Tuesday, Trump took credit for pledges from NATO allies at last week’s summit in Brussels to meet their targets for defense spending — a move he said was “bad for Russia.”
I had a great meeting with NATO. They have paid $33 Billion more and will pay hundreds of Billions of Dollars more in the future, only because of me. NATO was weak, but now it is strong again (bad for Russia). The media only says I was rude to leaders, never mentions the money!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2018
At a news conference following the NATO summit last week, the president claimed that alliance members had agreed to “substantially up their commitment . . . at levels that they’ve never thought of before.” However, other NATO leaders disputed Trump’s assertions, saying they had merely agreed to meet previous commitments.
While Trump characterized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathering as positive, several U.S. allies were offended by his brusque manner. At the outset of the summit, Trump claimed that a natural gas pipeline deal had left Germany “totally controlled” and “captive to Russia” as he levied fresh accusations about “delinquent” defense spending by allies.