After backlash, Trump says misspoke on Russian election meddling
But US president says he accepts conclusion by intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election.
President Donald Trump was forced into a rare admission of error after a political firestorm following his defence of Russia over claims of meddling in the 2016 US elections.
Republican and Democrat politicians in the United States, as well as intelligence officials, denounced Trump’s failure to challenge his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over alleged interference in the elections, calling his responses at a joint news conference in Finland as “shameful” and “disgraceful”.
Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Trump said he misspoke when he addressed reporters in Helsinki a day earlier, adding he accepts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did meddle in the elections won by him.
“I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,'” Trump told reporters. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.'”
But Trump maintained that Russia’s action had no impact on the result, which saw him defeat Democrat rival Hillary Clinton, and denied his campaign had colluded in the effort.
In the Finnish capital on Monday, Trump refused to say he believed US intelligence agencies over Russia’s denials of meddling and delivered no condemnation of Moscow’s interference.
‘Fake news going crazy’
Trump also blasted the media for its coverage of his meeting with Putin and NATO officials last week.
“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,” the president said on Twitter.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from the White House, said Trump “was sticking to the script” in his comments – a rare occurrence.
“He was almost reading this [statement]; very much an example of a White House in damage control mode, where the communications team has worked very hard to parse the statement of the president in Helsinki and try to turn it into something other than what many people believe they witnessed – and that was a president standing apart from his intelligence agencies and the conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election,” said Halkett.
The political firestorm over Trump’s performance at the Helsinki news conference engulfed the US administration and spread to his fellow Republicans, eclipsing most of the frequent controversies that have erupted during the presiednt’s turbulent 18 months in office.
Taking direct issue with the president who appointed him, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said US spy agencies have been “clear” and “fact-based” in their assessment that Moscow interfered in the presidential race two years ago.
John McCain, the senior Republican senator, said Trump’s seeming acceptance of Putin’s denial was a historical “low point” for the US presidency.
The language used by Democrats was much harsher, including accusations of “treason”.
“For the president of the US to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defence officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak,” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said.
Democratic California Representative Jimmy Gomez charged: “To side with Putin over US intelligence is disgusting; to fail to defend the US is on the verge of treason.”
Some lawmakers said they would seek remedies against Russia in Congress.
Several senators from both parties backed tougher sanctions on Russia, but it was unclear if Republican congressional leaders would support such a move or what new sanctions might be crafted.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia’s government “menacing,” said he would consider additional sanctions on Russia and reiterated his support for US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Last week, the US Department of Justice indicted 12 Russians for hacking Democratic Party computers.